IURTS Poland and Romania (Integration of Ukrainian Refugees Through Sport)

Sport and physical activity’s meaningful contribution to humanitarian relief: Integration of Ukrainian Refugee Children Through Sport (IRTS Ukraine)

world refugee day 2024 - for a world where refugees are welcome

Each year on 20th June, the world celebrates World Refugee Day, reflecting on the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. 
World Refugee Day 2024 is focused on solidarity with refugees: for a world where refugees are welcome. Solidarity means ensuring they feel safe in their new communities, that they have opportunities to thrive and to settle and ultimately, to ensure they feel that they belong.

According to the UNHRC, in June 2024 there are more than 115 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Out of them, more than 37 million are refugees. 

When someone becomes a refugee there is no way to know when, or if ever, they will be able to return home. It could be for a short time but more often it takes years, even generations. An average of 339,000 children are born as refugees per year. Many will be refugees for the rest of their lives, living in a legal and economic limbo. 

It is crucial that initiatives to support refugees focus not only on the immediate emergency needs when a crises arises but also have the long term view to ensure refugees will be able to rebuild their lives, access education and work. 

More than two years since the start of the war in Ukraine, there are an estimated six million Ukrainian refugees across Europe.

During the last 18 months, Laureus Sport for Good and its partners in the IURTS programme have worked to ensure that children refugees from Ukraine could feel safe and welcome in their host communities and schools in Poland and Romania.

V4Sport, Suceava Sport for all and Terres des Hommes Romania have created materials and provided training to 150 teachers to use sport, play and physical activity as a tool to bring children together in the classroom, facilitate learning and contribute to overcome the trauma of war.  
The materials have a key focus on interaction, helping children from Ukraine, Poland and Romania to learn more about each other. 

Reflecting on the success of the programme, a school teacher from Poland, said: “What pleases me the most is that Polish children could learn something interesting about Ukraine. So far, they only associated Ukraine with war. They were unaware of Ukraine's cultural heritage. The Ukrainian children were very happy that we were learning about their country during the lessons”.

In Bucharest, ‘Terres Des Hommes Romania’ have been supporting children through football. "The children who come to training are from different regions of Ukraine and the fact that they come together in teams (with children from Romania), that they do activities together, makes the integration process easier," says Artem Sergeevich, coach of the IFA Freedom team. "Terre des hommes activities are very much appreciated, the children have the opportunity to understand what children's rights mean and to share with each other what they have learned.”

Alexandra Jijie is one of 14 physical education and sport teachers who have been trained through the Integration of Ukrainian Refugees through Sport (IURTS) project. Working in Suceava, near Romania’s border with Ukraine, Alexandra uses the methodology of sport, games and creativity as a psychosocial tool to develop the personal and social skills of children who are at some point in their lives in a vulnerable situation.

"What we, physical education and sport teachers, have learned can be applied to other children with special educational needs, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, are victims of bullying, have suffered a trauma, or who simply cannot relate properly with their peers," says Alexandra.

IURTS consortium reinforces that children only want to be heard and understood

The third Integration of Ukrainian Refugee Children Through Sport (IURTS) project meeting was hosted by the University of Cassino (UNICAS) in Rome, Italy, from 21-23 May 2024. The project partners had the opportunity to get updated on the pilot activities’ progress and evaluation in Poland and Romania, as well as to discuss and agree on the project’s next steps. Additionally, the partners met Daniela Conti, representative of the Italian Union of Sport for All (UISP), learned about the work accomplished in Italy, and exchanged experience towards social integration of Ukrainian refugees through sport.  
IURTS is co-funded by Erasmus+ and supports the integration of Ukrainian refugee children through sport by collecting and developing scalable, targeted, hands-on resources, piloting testing them in Poland and Romania, and widening the impact through international networks in sport organisations across Europe to extend the results and benefit Ukrainian children across the continent. It has been 18 months since the Integration for Ukrainian Children Refugees project was launched and seeing the progress made on the ground has been highly inspiring. The project has been successfully implemented in more than 60 schools across Poland and Romania, reaching a total of over 10,000 children, 20% of them are refugee children from Ukraine. 

“Children want to be listened to, to be understood; they want empathy and a lot of understanding, no matter their nationality. Children need us, the teachers, sometimes even more than their parents who are not always by their side. This was confirmed to me during the training sessions. We, physical education teachers, are very lucky, we are privileged, because children love sports, they love movement. Pupils know that they have support in the physical education teacher, that’s why we know most of their problems and by standing together, we can solve them. We manage to do all these also thanks to meetings, discussions, cases debated during the coaching sessions envisaging principles that govern sport activities,” said Luminita Scripca, who is one of the 14 physical education and sports teachers in Romania, who have been trained by Terre des Hommes Romania, one of the IURTS partners.  the methodology used is called Movement, Games, Sports and Creativity (MGSC), which utilises sports, games and creativity as a psychosocial tool to develop personal and social skills of children, who are at a certain moment in their lives in a vulnerable situation.
Through sport and physical activities, the children have learned more about each other’s countries and cultural heritage, they have built friendships, and most importantly, it has helped children from Ukraine feel a little bit more at home. The damage of war might leave life-lasting scars on the children’s emotional and mental wellbeing. But giving them the opportunity to play and enjoy sport and physical activity in a safe environment has invaluable power to help them on their journey to recovery.

“The project strengthened friendships. It was an opportunity for laughter, discussion, and getting to know each other” - said one of the Polish teacher participating in the programme. 

“We use the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and inequality for children young people and their communities. This project is a great example that sport has the power to change the world" - said Elena Marin Yanez, expert at Laureus. 

The partners expressed that the meeting was an important occasion to consolidate the progress made in the IURTS project, as well as to get to know stories of change, collected through the evaluation process in the pilot in Romania. The next step is the launch of a social media campaign focusing on children’s well-being and social integration in and through sports, physical activity and movement.

Key project facts:

Title: Integration of Ukrainian Refugee Children Through Sport 

Project period: January 2023-December 2024

Co-funded by: Erasmus+ Sport Cooperation Partnerships

Grant amount: €400,000

Project lead: V4Sport Foundation, Poland

Partners: ISCA, Suceava Sport for All (Romania), Terre des Hommes (Romania), University of Cassino and Southern Lazio (Italy), Laureus Sport for Good

"We are building the future together"

"The Ukrainian humanitarian crisis has challenged us to react in accordance with the needs of refugees. That is why we must join forces through physical activity and sports in order to facilitate the social integration of Ukrainian children. Sport is a universal language that will help us overcome the problems caused by the armed conflict in the region.” 
Mihai Androhovici from the Association Sport for All Suceava, Romania, knows from first-hand experience how local sports organisations can respond effectively and meaningfully to some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Important lessons learned from his work and project leader V4Sport Foundation in Poland will be captured by the new Integration of Ukrainian Refugee Children Through Sport project (IRTS Ukraine)."
IRTS Ukraine is co-funded by Erasmus+ and will support the integration of Ukrainian refugee children through sport by collecting and developing scalable, targeted, hands-on resources, piloting testing them in Poland and Romania, and widening the impact through international networks in sport organisations across Europe to extend the results and benefit Ukrainian children across the continent.

The project partners, V4Sport Foundation, Suceava Sport for All, Romania, International Sport and Culture Association, Terre des Hommes Romania, University of Cassino and Sothern Lazio Italy, Laureus Sport for Good, have joined forces to embark on this 2-year project (2023-2024), with its kick-off meeting taking place in March.

Together we will collect best practices and develop materials to assist with integration efforts for Ukrainian refugee children through sport, with a focus on sharing inspiration with schools and sports clubs. In Romania and Poland, we plan to pilot activities and the materials with specific focus on peer-learning programmes, and evaluation and refinement of the materials. The project will deliver three webinars for the Integration of Refugees Through Sport network and build capacity in more organisations through seminars and workshops during the 2023 MOVE Congress.

The project partners met in Wroclaw at the end of March to work on the project’s action plan. They explained why this initiative is so important in the overall response to this crisis:

“Although there are over 6000 languages spoken worldwide, every child understands body language. We need to use the power of sport to bring children together and to promote greater integration and understanding.” Jakub Kalinowski, V4Sport, Poland

“Quoting Nelson Mandela, Laureus Sport for Good deeply believes that ‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand’. We believe in sport as a powerful tool to build bridges, to heal and improve physical and mental health, and to boost learning.” Elena Marin Yanez, Laureus Sport for Good

“Sport plays a huge role in bringing communities together. The grassroots sport community in Poland and Romania has a tremendous record when it comes to supporting the need of Ukrainian refugees. But we recognise that there’s still a need to build the capacities of grassroots sport organisations to support refugees with sport and physical activity, which give comfort and relief. We know that positive experiences can turn into changes in attitudes and a better future. ISCA is proud to be a partner in this project and to create more opportunities for Ukrainian refugees and for organisations that provide activities for them.” Saska Benedicic Tomat, ISCA Head of projects.

Key Project Facts
Title: Integration of Ukrainian Refugee Children Through Sport
Project period: January 2023-December 2024
Co-funded by: Erasmus+ Sport Cooperation Partnerships
Grant amount: €400,000
Project lead: V4Sport Foundation, Poland - Strona główna - Fundacja V4Sport
Suceava Sport for All (Romania) -
University of Cassino and Southern Lazio (Italy) - Home (
Laureus Sport for Good - About Sport For Good | Laureus


In a constantly changing world, an estimated 114 million displaced people (including almost 40 million refugees) are escaping conflicts, violation of human rights, persecution or natural disasters. Despite the different circumstances in the affected countries and continents hosting these people, one thing remains the same: sport represents a unique power to support these people to adapt and integrate in their new cultures and societies. Hence, on 16 November at the MOVE Congress, participants interested in the topic of integration of refugees through sport were invited to an interactive workshop packed with expert presentations, a panel discussion and active learning. 

During the two-hour session, the speakers presented both the different and similar challenges that displaced people face in European countries, as well as in Africa, Middle East and in the Americas. Most refugees (70% in 2022) maintain close ties to their motherland, and many also struggle to integrate into their new communities due to racism, miscommunication, intolerance and even violence against refugees. This only adds more pressure to the already extreme circumstances and their abilities to cope. However, it is possible to (re)build bridges: sport can play a key role if used as a universal language and used to create safe spaces, the speakers argued.

At the beginning of the session, Jakub Kalinowski, president of V4Sport Foundation, Poland, presented a two-year project (Integration of Ukrainian Refugees Through Sport) that was developed as an instant reaction to the Russian-Ukrainian war. As a result of the war, millions of Ukrainian refugees fled the country entering mainly Poland and Romania, which posed several challenges to the hosting countries, including the need to help refugee children integrate.

To keep up with the increasing need to provide Ukrainian refugees with a safe space, V4Sport (with the support of the International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA)) submitted a proposal to finance the development of educational, fun and age-appropriate materials for children and training for schools and sport organisations, as well as engaging a wider network of sport organisations in a coordinated approach to supporting the Ukrainian children with their trauma and psycho-social stress. The language barrier has been a great challenge even from the very start of the war, but as Kalinowski noted, the “teachers don’t speak Ukrainian, they don’t speak Russian as many of the Ukrainian kids do, but we do believe that being active, doing things together, is the best language that brings kids together, and by having fun, they create those very important bonds that help them to navigate through this very difficult period”.
MOVE Congress 2023
Creating a future together
Building on the slogan of the 2012 Ukrainian-Polish co-hosted European Football Championship (“Creating history together”), the Integration of Ukrainian Refugees Through Sport project envisaged the slogan Creating a Future Together.

Following this introductory presentation, which set the landscape and scope for the panel discussion and workshop, representatives of Fútbol Más invited attendees to a short activation session where participants had the chance to experience in practice how movement/physical activity and sport can be used as a universal language.

After the audience’s happy brain chemicals were activated by the quick game, the panel discussion began and was moderated by Elena Marin Yanez, Head of Programmes and Grants at Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, who invited the panellists to share, discuss and reflect on their work and experiences.

Ebrahim Pishtaz had been studying Law and Political Science for two years and had been working with the World Food Programme, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, WFP World Vision and collaborated with the Government of Afghanistan before he arrived in Spain in 2022 as a refugee. He gave the audience an insight on how a young man – as he is only 27 years of age – had planned his life working with international agencies to help his country and his people live under better (and safer) circumstances. But unfortunately, due to the war, he had to leave Afghanistan, leaving – as he referred to it – his simple life, with frequent hikes, playing and watching football, and all his plans for his future behind. When he arrived in Spain, he did not speak the language, he did not know anybody. But one day his roommate asked him if he wanted to go and play football. That was the light in the deep dark night. 

“When I came here, I saw a lot of different faces, different colours. But still, we were the same. We can understand each other by looking in each other’s eyes. We didn’t need to talk,” Pishtaz said, reflecting on his memories of going to play football with fellow refugees.

Luckily, with the support of the Spanish UNHCR Committee, ACNUR, Red Deportivo and later the Football Federation of Spain, he could live his passion for football so far away from home that in a way strengthened his intrinsic motivation to learn Spanish and to make friends. Despite all the challenges he had faced, he is happy for his new life now.
MOVE Congress 2023
Feeling safe is about physical and emotional safety
Following Ebrahim’s words, Edelmira Campos Núñez, Assistant External Relations Officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, gave us an insight on how the UNHCR operates, not only in Spain, but also spreading the scope to the whole world. She highlighted two especially important toolkits developed by the UNHCR:

- More than a game toolkit developed within the framework of the UNHCR Sport Strategy 2022 – 2026
- Sport for protection toolkit

The strategy and the toolkits bring sport to some of the world’s most disadvantaged young people, regardless of the geographical location, with the goal to harness the power of sport to offer protection in terms of psychosocial well-being, social cohesion and social inclusion, both intra and interpersonal development, and environments for vulnerable children and youth.

Edelmira explained that humanitarian staff not only help and support refugees, but also observe them to see if they – especially women and girls – are being excluded from the community or treated as second-class citizens, even within the refugee camp. Therefore, the UNHCR places great emphasis on tailoring programmes for women and girls to help them feel empowered, to develop their leadership skills, provide safe spaces for education, with special regard to sexual education, and to prevent sexual violence.

“Feeling safe is not only about physical safety, but also emotional,” Edelmira Campos Núñez affirms.

Besides the international collaboration between national and international initiatives (e.g. promoting the Euro Unity Cup, Refugee Olympic Team, supporting the Women’s Race in Spain with free participation of women and girls in the race), UNHCR organises the Global Refugee Forum every four years, which will take place in Geneva 13-15 December 2023. On this occasion, UNHCR aims to mobilise pledges to protect refugees: in 2023 it is Sport for Inclusion and Protection which promotes activities and policies enabling protection, inclusion and self-reliance of refugees through sport, initiation of inclusive and safe sport-based programmes; targeted communication, evidence and advocacy; and strengthening partnerships and coordination.
Brightening up a “grey everyday” for children and adults in refugee camps 
Building on programmes that empower refugees, Ahmad Al-Kharouf, Senior Programme Officer at Generations for Peace, Jordan, shared the essence of the Nashatati Programme through the eyes of Hamzeh Ali Aroush, a 14-year old Syrian refugee in Jordan attending the programme. It was launched in 2017 with the aim to provide children from grades 1 to 10 additional opportunities to interact and engage through fun after-school activities that foster life skills development, active lifestyle, tolerance, acceptance and social cohesion within communities in a safe environment.

Oleksandra Boliak, Secretary General of UkraineActive, explained how life has changed since the Russian – Ukrainian war broke out on 24 February 2022. UkraineActive is raising awareness of the health benefits of regular physical activity, as well as the costs and consequences of inactivity. Creating links and fostering partnerships between the physical activity sector, academia, government and civil society to identify common challenges and opportunities was not an easy task in the pre-war Ukraine, but the war brought along a blessing in disguise, as she mentioned: “since the beginning of the war everything has changed. At this moment, we have a strong partnership in the country among the sectors”.

The last panellist to speak up was Perrine Mardiné, International Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at Futbol Más Global (FM), an international organisation that uses sport to transform realities. Following on from the activation session, she highlighted that FM always puts the children in the centre to promote their well-being, using sport to do so. FM’s methodology mixes two elements: sport (tactical, technical content) and social/emotional content (e.g. conflict resolution). By mixing and integrating these two ingredients FM creates social-sport programmes for children and youth.

Perrine highlighted one example of an intervention in particular: The Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, established in 1992 as a temporary facility, is by today one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Refugees from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Somalia escaping inhuman circumstances in their homelands try to find asylum here, and even though the basic needs i.e. meals, shelter, schools, medical centres are provided in the camp, “many people have been there for more than 10 years waiting for something to happen, something that is very unlikely to happen, and something that doesn’t depend on them,” Mardiné said.

Perrine Mardiné also mentioned a study that was carried out in Kakuma a few years ago that investigated the feelings of the refugees. In spite the predicted feelings such as: anger, fear, stress, anxiety, the majority of the respondents said: hopelessness. Not long after the study, Futbol Más arrived at the camp: bringing with them some colour to the brighten up the grey everyday of the refugees. And, all of the sudden, the reality changed, especially by mixing emotional and social content into a context in which “nothing happens”. They saw the results of the programme almost immediately in children feeling safer increasing their capacities to deal with these circumstances.

“Sport is social magnet that helps pass the differences. There is no judgement; everyone can participate,” Mardiné concluded, emphasising that sport is a vehicle to drive social cohesion and creating safe spaces for people who need it the most.

The panel closed with a final thought from Ebrahim Pishtaz: “We all have problems, we are far away from home and from family. We have financial difficulties. Every refugee has the same problems. But when we go on the field to play or train, we forget everything. We just try to enjoy the moment. And in that moment, we are the luckiest and happiest people in the world. (…) When I arrived here and saw girls playing with boys in the camps it was surprising, and it was new for me because I had never had this experience in my life. On the field we are in a safe place without threats or obligations. It feels like when you take a fish from the aquarium and put it in the ocean.”

At the end of the session, ISCA Project Coordinator Katerina Salta announced the debut of the project called IRTS Global, starting in January 2024. The partnership behind the project is unprecedented, comprising UN institutions, funding bodies, global networks, humanitarian organisations, and sporting bodies. And it is taking the international dimension of the Erasmus+ sport programme to a new level, with a truly global group of partners from both Erasmus+ countries and beyond.

Discover more about ISCA’s Integration of Refugees Through Sport initiatives at the dedicated website


Email Sign up

Email Sign-up

Sign up for all things Laureus

Get regular updates throughout the year