To mark World Refugee Day, RIFA, Goal Click and Danish sportswear brand hummel have teamed up on a project to showcase the role of soccer in creating dialogue in a divided world. Three players from RIFA (Rooklyn International Football Association) - a Brooklyn-based organisation working with refugee, asylee, and immigrant youth through soccer - told the inside story of their lives and experiences with RIFA and New York City over the course of two months in 2019. The collaboration is part of the 5683 campaign, aimed at finding common ground and a simple faith in humanity across the divide. Shonagh Cleary is originally from Ireland, coming to the USA on a soccer scholarship.
What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with the photos?
The photos were taken throughout NYC and on Randall’s Island. My goal was to show happiness through soccer and a journey throughout the city. My friend’s son Matthew is in many of the photos. Matthew doesn’t really play soccer, but he is always coming with me to my games, and through that he meets loads of people and has made many friends. He has also realized he doesn’t actually hate the sport. Myself, I am an international soccer player - I played U16 for my country Ireland.
Can you tell us your personal story?
I am from Ireland, and I came here as I got scouted for a soccer scholarship. I was hesitant at first, and said no. After saying no to everyone one coach reached out to me one last time and something just felt right, so I took it and said yes. I went to Mississippi, where I made awesome friends and played for three months there, but felt as if it wasn’t the right fit for me. I then transferred to NYC, where it was a struggle but I don’t regret a minute of it.
Did you play football before you came to the USA? If so, who with?
I have played with many clubs throughout Ireland, and also played with the U16 Irish team until it was folded. I played in a tournament in England.
Why did you leave your country?
I love my country at times. I had no real reason for leaving as education there is insanely great, but when an opportunity comes up to travel, play ball, get experience and also get educated, who could say no?
Why is football important for you and your community?
Soccer is important for me because it was an escape, an escape to put my thoughts, feelings, and energy somewhere. I was a very energetic kid and what better place to let it out than on the field? For my community, being involved in sports is important, as my country runs on sport and honestly you may be classed as an “outsider” if you didn’t play sport. At times that can be sad, but being involved in sport kept you out of other stuff. For example Irish people love to drink. Having something to do and occupy your mind can steer you away from things that may bring you downhill.
How has RIFA/LIU changed your life?
LIU (Ladies International United) was my first team I played for when I arrived in NYC. It was honestly great, as I met my best friends here and I have had many opportunities - people noticed me and I got the chance to play in more leagues. It was great to meet new people, stay active and learn new things.
What role does football play in your life at the moment?
Football is important as it keeps me sane. Anything that happens, like problems at work, I get to put them out on the field and just let them go. It’s important as it keeps me growing and climbing the ladder, it’s important as it helps me get my education, and lastly it keeps both my mind and body healthy.
Do you play football now with any Americans? How do you find the American people?
I play all over the place. I play a lot in Chelsea Piers and the friends I have met over there are wonderful. I found them by getting asked to compete in more leagues and through connections between people.
What ambitions do you have for the future?
My goal for the future is to stay playing soccer and get as far as I can up the ladder. I also want to stay coaching and also see how far I can get. My actual goal in life is to become a personal trainer and slowly work up to having my own gym one day, and coach on the side. So far I like NYC and for now I see myself staying here. I have great friends here and for the first time in my life, I am independent, carefree, happy and don’t need to rely on my parents as much anymore.