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A sporting way to welcome migrants

Bandy, a traditional Scandinavian sport, forms bond between Swedes and the arriving Somalian refugees.

Last updated: 18 Feb 2014 15:25
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Bandy, a forefather of ice hockey, has taken Somalia to the World Championships in just seven months [Paul Rhys]

A minivan crunches to a stop on the frozen gravel and players get out to unload ice skates, helmets and sticks, before walking to the changing rooms, glancing at the rink where two Swedish teams are playing under floodlights and falling snow.

The scraping glide of the skates is accompanied by shouts calling for a pass, the crack of a shot on goal, or a grunt as one player bodychecks another and sends him sprawling out of the rink, set on the edge of a forest in Borlänge, a couple of hours north of Stockholm.

The uniforms immediately bring to mind the NHL. But this isn't ice hockey, this is bandy, an older sport than the one played by Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, and in which professionals from Scandinavia and Russia can earn huge contracts.

It's played on a rink the size of a football pitch, with a ball instead of a puck, and with 11 players on each side. In Europe, it's also played almost exclusively by Swedes, Finns, Norwegians or Russians. 

Now, thanks to the young men in the minivan, we can add Somalis to that list as well.

Before June last year, none of these refugees from the Horn of Africa could skate. Last week, they returned from representing Somalia at the World Championships in Siberia.

And with bandy being demonstrated at Sochi as it bids for inclusion at Pyeongchang 2018, it could take Somalis to the Winter Olympics for the first time as well.

"It feels awesome," Abdihakin Mohamed, a 17-year-old student who came to Sweden four years ago told Al Jazeera after coming off the ice.

"I wasn't really interested in bandy at first. I thought it was difficult and boring. But then I realised it's more interesting than football."

Sporting ambitions aside, their higher calling is to lead the way in showing immigrants in Borlänge and beyond that it is worth the effort to become part of their new societies – and to convince people already there that the arrivals should be welcomed and not resented.

"The problem was that we had just under 50,000 people living in Borlänge and in a short time there had come about 4,000 Somalis," says Patrik Andersson, who came up with the idea of a Somali bandy team.

"It was kind of selfish, because we have three children, and I thought we had to do something to make this a good community to live in or we could have some problems for the future in my little town."

Swedish steel

Those problems include the decline of the once-thriving steel and paper industries, and the anger that often accompanies influxes of migrants perceived as being 'on the take'.

We have no real problems yet, except the growth on one side of a political party with racist undertones, and the danger that immigrants will establish a new lower class with little understanding of Swedish society.

Nils Gossas, Borlänge mayor

One person who appears to do nothing but give is Mursal Isa, a nomad from Puntland whose journey to Sweden via Mogadishu was typical for many Somalis but unimaginably dangerous for most people in the West.

After being deposited in the coldest reaches of northern Sweden 15 years ago, Mursal now works to help fellow Somalis settle in Borlänge and learn Swedish. He is also the chairman of the local Green Party, and is up for election on both the town and county lists at Sweden's general election this September.

And he is leader of the bandy team, overseeing the Siberia tour alongside Patrik – and seeing the huge positives amid scorelines such as Somalia 1 Germany 22, Japan 12 Somalia 0.

"Becoming part of Swedish society is a hard way to take, but it must be taken," he says. "It's not just about going to school.

"Sport has no boundaries. The bandy team has already helped because we have many more Swedish friends than we did before. The team opens doors every day – it's a unique opportunity for the Somali people and the Swedish people to come together."

Earlier, at the town hall, Nils Gossas, one of the town's triumvirate of mayors, is adamant that Borlänge is in a position to benefit from the newcomers if it works with them.

"We have no real problems yet, except the growth on one side of a political party with racist undertones, and the danger that immigrants will establish a new lower class with little understanding of Swedish society," he says, while a colleague demonstrates studies showing how properly-integrated immigrants can become productive at little cost to the town, and fill in for a local population that is fast reaching retirement age.

"If our integration work goes as planned, immigrants will be a valuable asset for economic and cultural development. And the bandy team is part of that."

Homes, schools and jobs are the basics for people arriving to try and make a better life for themselves.

The things that could take them to the next level are sticks, skates, ice and a ball.

Paul Rhys is a freelance sports reporter and presenter writing for Al Jazeera from Paris. Follow him on @PaulRhys_Sport or go to paulrhys.com.

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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