The kindness of strangers: western Sydney soccer team helps refugees feel right at home

A group of asylum seekers living in western Sydney will kick off their first training session as a registered football team tonight.

About two dozen players, most of whom are on bridging visas, will take to their new home ground at Silverwater’s Wilson Park tonight after they were welcomed into the Newington Gunners Soccer Club on February 24.

‘‘We are all very happy,” player Mohammad Jawad, 26, of Auburn said.

The Pakistani-born soccer enthusiast said he and his teammates were ‘‘very thankful’’ to enter the Granville Open Mens’ League after their team registration and uniform costs of more than $6600 were covered by community donations from across Sydney.

“I want to do my best for them and the club,” Mr Jawad said.

Players in the team unofficially known as Auburn United FC have come to Australia from Afghanistan, Africa, Nepal, Turkey, Pakistan and Tajikistan and have played together at Auburn Park each day before being welcomed into the Newington Gunners Soccer Club.

Each day for about eight months Mr Jawad and the rest of Auburn United FC met at Auburn Park to play soccer under the guise of coach and fellow asylum seeker Essa Khan, 44, of Auburn.

Mr Essa said the team had been desperate to join an official competition so they could participate in Australian life before their story attracted media attention, which prompted the donations.

Settlement Services International chief executive Violet Roumeliotis said the team also had many offers of in-kind support from people in the form of boots and shin pads, as well as offers from people to volunteer their time for the team.

‘‘They can’t wait to get on the field and represent the Gunners,’’ Ms Roumeliotis said.

‘‘But I think the name Auburn United FC retains a lot of sentimental value to them and may stick as an unofficial name.’’

Ms Roumeliotis said Settlement Services International became involved with the Auburn United FC team after the players on bridging visas approached their case managers about having their team registered so they could play in a competition.

‘‘Those who are on bridging visas, they are unable to work here,’’ Ms Roumeliotis said. ‘‘So a major hurdle for them was their limited funds to pay for registration, uniforms and travel costs.

‘‘Our staff started looking for potential sponsors for the team and after ABC 702 Sydney and The Sydney Morning Herald published stories about these men, we received a steady flow of offers of support from the community.’’

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