On a bright Sunday morning in the suburbs of Jerez, Spain, groups of young migrants begin to arrive at the San Telmo sports ground. Many have been working the late shift in kitchens or factories across the city; others have been working at traffic signals, selling tissues or washing windshields of waiting cars. Some have slept on the streets.
For the next few hours, these daily struggles are forgotten. The migrants – hailing primarily from west and north Africa - have found a new team and a new family: Alma de Africa, the Soul of Africa.
In the dressing room they change into the bright green team colors. Emblazoned on the front of the shirt is Article 14 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution.’
Midfielder Modu Ndiaye left his home in Senegal two years ago.
“To see the players happy for a while makes me feel good, because we can forget about the bad things in life,” he told VOA.
The results don’t always match such optimism. After the match, a 3-1 loss to Estrella Portuense B, Ndiaye and teammate Bashir Adlaf spoke about their experiences in Spain.
Like many of his teammates, Ndiaye risked his life in an overcrowded boat to reach Spanish shores.
“We took a boat to the island of Tenerife. It took 10 days, it was really hard. Everyone thought we wouldn’t make it. We ran out of drinking water, we suffered so much. Thanks to God we got there.”
Modu’s teammate Bashir Aldaf arrived in Jerez just two months ago and immediately set about looking for a team.
“I went to Jerez Football Club for two weeks, but the coach told me I can’t play because I don’t have the right papers. He told me to go and find Alma de Africa.”
Alma de Africa was born three years ago , when locals spotted a group of migrants playing football in a park. The players would often argue, so the locals found a referee, and in stepped Alejandro Benitez, now president of the club.
On the pitch, Benitez saw talent. Off it, he recognized deep vulnerability. So he set up a team and persuaded the Spanish football leagues to let them play.
“We started from nothing, we put in our own money,” says Benitez. “The problem is that every year we have to start from zero.”
Benitez appears to be a father figure for many of the players. He says local authorities must do more to help the migrants get on their feet.
“At the end of the match we cannot let them go back to their old way of living, selling stuff at traffic signals, washing cars,” says Benitez. “We need more than footballs. We need apartments, so they can avoid living on the streets, we need classes so they can learn the language more quickly, we need support to get them into the labor market, so we can show that diversity is not negative, it is positive.”
Claiming asylum and getting the right legal papers can take years. Without the right documents, finding steady work is all but impossible. Despite the support of the club, Bashir Adlaf is finding it tough.
“Before I believed it would be a better life in Spain. But if you don’t have a job it is very difficult,” he says.
Alma de Africa supports a fraction of the tens of thousands of migrants arriving every year in Spain. But more broadly, its founders hope to change attitudes through a shared sporting passion.
On the pitch the team is struggling. But an even bigger challenge is to find the money to keep this football family going forward.