Syrian refugees and young people displaced from other war-torn countries are now able to call on the support of a ‘second family’ thanks to an initiative created and managed by Austrian rugby international Udo Richson.
Since its launch 2015, Rugby Opens Borders (ROB) has helped to integrate hundreds of teenagers into Austrian society through free weekly training sessions, social get-togethers and excursions.
In addition, ROB focuses on the personal development of the participants, by offering one-to-one coaching and tutoring through a specialised coaching team including international players such as Richson, a twice-capped winger cum full-back.
"We want to bring people together not alienate them. If you include these people, they will want to be part of society"
“Like many things do, it started with an idea,” the 28-year-old said. “At the beginning of 2015 the vice-president of my rugby club, Donau Wien, asked me if I was interested in developing a social project. I said yes straight away because I had a rough time when I was younger and the values of rugby helped me get my life in order.
“I’d heard that there were many unaccompanied refugee children living in shelters in Austria while they waited to see if they'd be allowed to stay in the country or not. Some would be here doing nothing for up to a year.
“So, we took some rugby balls to these shelters to see if they’d be interested in joining us for training. At first they looked puzzled as to why the ball was egg-shaped but after we showed them a video and explained what the sport was all about, they were keen to get involved. They loved the physical side of rugby because it enabled them to let off some steam.
“We started with five to 10 players but now we are running sessions where we have up to 30 children taking part. A good number of the refugees have made it into Donau Wien’s youth teams and are excelling. They’re fit young guys and fast learners.
“In 2016 we were even invited to participate in a sevens tournament at the United World Games. There, a team made up entirely of refugees competed with other teams from around the world, even those from international rugby academies.”
Richson could not disguise his pleasure when receiving the Award for Character on behalf of ROB at the World Rugby Awards ceremony in London in November, and recognition has come closer to home, too, after the Austrian Foreign Minister gave the organisation the prize for integration through sport.
However, Richson’s real sense of satisfaction and enjoyment comes from helping those less fortunate than himself who, without ROB, might otherwise be marginalised in Austrian society.
“We want to bring people together not alienate them. If you include these people, they will want to be part of society," he said.
Having overseen the project from the start, Richson has big plans for the future. “Stade Rugby Club is now involved and we have 10 sites offering facilities in Vienna alone. It has also been rolled out to Innsbruck.
“We are hoping to continue expanding. We think this is achievable in every rugby club. All you need is a pitch for these guys to train on and build up some social activity around it. We want to build up a huge network.”
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