United by football and equality
Unlocking opportunities for children in Thailand
PlayOnside was founded in 2013 with the following main objectives:
- bring all communities in Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Burmese border with a substantial migrant and refugee population, together through football
- give children equal opportunities to play regardless of their ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic background
- challenge gender-based prejudice preventing girls from participating in society and, specifically, in male-dominated football by encouraging teachers and headmasters to give girls equal opportunities
- empower through participation by equipping young local leaders with the tools to implement the PlayOnside football and education program in their own local communities.
In this way, the organization creates professional opportunities for locals instead of working with volunteers from abroad, and thus ensures stability for children that are already subject to a lot of uncertainty. With their humble approach and strong work ethic, PlayOnside has grown into one of the most influential sports organization on the Thai-Burmese border over the past six years.
I am personally looking forward to following PlayOnside’s continuous work and the progress of the ‘Green Island’ project. And I am extremely proud of our SGRE impact initiative and thrilled to see that we invest in such great causes.
The “Green Island”
When we walked out of the small airport, we were greeted warmly by Ole Michelsen, project manager at PlayOnside and our guide for the next three days. To get a lay of the land, he gave us the grand tour of Mae Sot, ending at the local garbage dump just outside of town – the location of our project “Green Island”.
The people who live in this community are migrants or refugees from nearby Burma who collect plastic from the garbage dump, and clean and resell it for a living. We drove by big tumblers that were drying the scavenged material, a massive warehouse full of plastic scraps, and small huts made of corrugated iron and wooden branches, with people smiling and waving at us from inside.
When the pickup truck came to a stop, we found ourselves right next to a big square that had been transformed into a full-sized dirt football field. Children of different ages were just kicking around a football for fun and came to greet us. Ole and the group of kids proudly showed us the newly built community center made of sustainable material, which had also been created using funding from SGRE impact.
Early the next morning, the entire coaching team treated us to a delicious local Burmese/Thai breakfast in the Muslim neighborhood of Mae Sot.
The coaches discussed the agenda for the day one last time before driving over to the Green Island: the children would start the tournament with some playful team building activities, and then be divided into 8 teams with 7 children of all ages. Each team, assigned to represent a given country of the world, had to draw their adopted national flag, learn basic facts about the culture, and find out how to say hello in the local language.
Midday, the kids retired to the shade of the community center to escape the heat and have lunch: rice with spicy vegetables and chicken feet prepared by the women in the community. In the afternoon hours, it was finally time to play some football and the first national teams faced each other.
The following day started early once again to make the best use of the time before the midday sun made being outside unbearable. The teams played passionately, and the kids and parents on the sideline cheered them with gusto. The final game of the tournament would have been unheard of in a “real” World Cup: India vs. Norway! After a tough game, the teams tied. All players received a medal, a Siemens Gamesa cap, and the winning teams shared the golden trophy.
To close the tournament, the women of the community played the female coaches in a very competitive game, also ending in a surprising win by the women of the community. All in all, the tournament was a great success with children as well as parents. A mother approached Ole and Javier afterwards and told them that she hadn’t seen her son this happy in a very long time, and shared how thankful she was for PlayOnside’s work. That feedback was a great end to a fantastic event.
A lasting impression
I must say that the days in Mae Sot have left a lasting impression on me: especially meeting the members of the local community and enjoying their great hospitality and zest for life, which they freely shared despite their difficult living situation. Seeing firsthand the joy and pride PlayOnside’s football program brings to these children and parents was very special.
Equally impressive was to see how devoted all representatives of PlayOnside – Ole, Javier, and all the local coaches – are to bettering the lives of these children and, at the same time, to improving the conditions of the migrant and refugee communities in Mae Sot.