Standort: / Meldung: "A Sense of Pride, A Feeling of Community"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

30. 11. 2016 - 06:00

A Sense of Pride, A Feeling of Community

ROB, an Austrian project to get refugees involved in rugby, has won a major international prize for the positive effect it has had on young people's lives. No wonder.


The roar rings out on a wind-swept, wet and cold Sunday night in Vienna’s Prater - training ground of the Rugby Club Donau. It’s the sort of blustery evening where only the most motivated person would dare venture outside but there’s plenty of enthusiasm radiating from the group of young refugees who have gathered, as they do on every Sunday at this time, to hone their newly learned rugby skills.

Rugby training


Under the glow of floodlights, the refugees scamper over the turf thrusting oval-shaped balls into each other’s arms. It’s an intense session and they even willingly accept a ‘punishment’ of press-ups when too many balls are dropped. But there’s laughter too and slaps on the backs.

"Rugby ist ein geiler Sport," says Said, from Afghanistan.

New Life. New Sport.

Afghanistan? Rugby? The sport is played passionately in some exotic locations, including Fiji and Samoa but for most of the young players in the Prater it’s new sport; a new cultural experience. "Before I came to Austria I had no idea what rugby was," says Mohammed from Syria, wearing a grey beanie against the cold. "My friends here told me about it and it’s a way to play together and have a lot of activities."

It’s not both the sweaty training that appeals to Mohammed, a chirpy self-assured teenager, but also the shared meal in the clubhouse afterwards. "We’re all together," he says, "we eat together, we do everything together. It’s awesome." The meal, this time chicken wraps oozing with guacamole which have been cooked and served by volunteers from the Rugby Club Donau, is a chance to bond and to swap stories of the week gone-by: maths tests and bureaucratic hurdles.

"Positively Influencing Lives"

ROB stands for Rugby Opens Borders, a sport and integration initiative. This autumn it won the most prestigious social awards in global rugby: the Award for Character at the World Rugby Awards 2016. ROB was chosen above projects from across the globe by a jury decided that the Vienna-based project "clearly demonstrates how the true values of rugby can positively influence the lives of young people."



The training is open and welcoming to anybody who wants to try out rugby, you don’t have to be a refugee. But the project is designed to reach out primarily accompanied minor asylum seekers and assimilate them into a team environment. 

Most of the young players arrived in Austria as unaccompanied minors. Far from their homes and families, it is all too easy to understand why this sense of community is important for the players.

Making The Wait Bearable

Udo Richson, who founded and runs the project, explains that he wanted to help the young people arriving in Austria in the past months. "Once they come here they have a very long waiting period where they can’t do anything. And the worst thing is they are sitting in shelters, isolated, not meeting any Austrians, not learning the language, not doing anything useful.  And we thought we have a chance to break that up a little bit."

Making Friends

The players from ROB train together on Sundays and have learned the game from scratch, but on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s they have the chance to join the regular Donau training sessions for their age groups. That’s important too: it’s a chance to improve their skills while making Austrian friends:

"We are refugees. That’s the thing," says ROB player Sami, heartbreakingly: "Nobody wants contact with us." But the team experience of the rugby club has been a way to break that mould.

Good game


In a team it doesn’t matter where you are from, or what pigmentation you have in your skin. It just matters what you do for your teammates and in rugby that feeling is particularly intense, as Mathias Dachler, Udo’s coaching partner, explains: "If you put your body on the line for someone else and he does the same for you and everyone does the same for everybody else then that is a good feeling."

Training with ROB


Putting your body on the line sounds pretty intimidating and, at first glance, rugby can look like organized violence. There are the bodily entanglements of rucks and the mauls, all sprawling limbs and lots of mud. Sometimes the field looks like the sort of sporting vision that would be dreamed up by Hieronymus Bosch.

But look again and you’ll see that’s not fair. There are strict and complicated rules that safeguard player safety. No-one wants to deliberately hurt an opponent. "In rugby we have a set of values: including tolerance, respect solidarity but it’s also about passion and discipline." says Udo: "So I think it is the perfect tool actually to bring people together from different backgrounds and make them value each other and support each other."

Rugby is great vehicle for creating a tight-knit sense of kinship, he adds: "The sport is not centred around the individual. You really learn to grow into a team. You learn that it is very important to support each other and respect each other."

Mathias says teaching the ROB players the game from scratch was surprisingly easy: "Basically they are just young people who have a lot of energy and want to get that energy out." The only problems were to occasional language barriers which were overcome by sign language and the skills of multilingual Khaled from Syria who acts as an instant interpreter for a Babel of backgrounds.

So while the refugees have learned a lot from the coaches: all capped players from the Austrian national team, the coaches too have learned from the refugees. That astounding willingness to learn and ability to pick up languages. Refugees are often depicted as victims; and of course to some extent they are, but they are also often pro-active, open-minded learners: figures of respect more than pity.

Training session


The ROB project is young - it was started in late 2015 - and hopes to expand, in particular by increasing the participation of girls. In its first year the project attracted many more boys than girls. That wasn’t surprising, laughs coach Anna Ruiz, because the promotional video they would be shown featured "gigantic, muscle-bound men, sweating and slamming into each other." But then they found a video of the Iranian national women’s team playing.

"Obviously the Iranian team plays with hijabs," says Anna. "You could see in their faces that spark. This was something they could relate too. You could see in their eyes something was changing and they started coming. "

And in the few months since it all began project ROB has already provided some great memories. Johannes Dachler was part of the coaching team that brought the new players to the United World Games in Carinthia.

rugby team


They didn’t win a game but they scored some tries - the rugby equivalent of goals - "The first try from our kids against an English team was unbelievable," says Johannes. "The kids were so happy. They were jumping around and celebrating. And they met people from the UK and the US and from all over the globe. They felt that they were really part of something and that we are family."