Soccer becomes community cornerstone for Shepparton’s Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani youth
Posted On April 26, 2022
Three years ago an impromptu soccer game among Afghan girls and boys kicked off on a dusty, disused piece of land next to a playground in Shepparton.
An unkempt Shepparton park has for years been home to a grassroots soccer initiative
Organisers welcome people of all ages and ethnicities to the mixed-gender matches
Donations of equipment and a commitment from council for a pitch are securing its future
Today, the regular games at Ducat Reserve have become a community meeting place where players of various ages and ethnicities bond over a shared love of the game.
Fazela Abbasi and Rezwana Baqiri are part of the group of women who initiated the mini soccer matches, and both want to see young people from migrant communities in the Goulburn Valley thrive.
“We had a bunch of younger kids, a mix of girls and boys, get together,” said Ms Abbasi, a former Greater Shepparton City Council Youth Volunteer of the Year.
“Normally parents bring their kids to this park anyway to play, and most of us live around this area.
“So they usually peek through their windows or walk past and see kids playing, and we just thought that it was probably the perfect area to start a mini game. The numbers started to grow from there.”
The ages of attendees vary, with toddlers, teens, and adults alike congregating to play soccer and socialise most afternoons.
“We had the Syrian community, Iraqis, Afghans, and some Pakistani kids get involved as well.”
Grassroots games win support
Although they had plenty of enthusiasm, the Ducat Reserve players lacked proper equipment.
For more than a year they made do with plastic water bottles for goalposts until, in 2021, the Ethnic Council of Shepparton and District helped secure a donation of goals, balls, shirts, and shorts from Melbourne City Football Club.
“It was really nice to see all the kids come to the park one day and see all this equipment. They were so happy,” Ms Abbasi said.
“We saw the boys pop on the shirts and they started playing straight away.”
Still, the makeshift pitch was in poor condition.
Ms Baqiri plays soccer competitively as captain of her Shepparton United Soccer Club team, but it was casual games played at Ducat Reserve that worried her mother.
“It was very dusty and it was very rough,” she said.
“I’d come home and my mum would ask, ‘What have you done? Is that the place to play?’
“She’d be very worried about us.”
Organisers made a case to Greater Shepparton City Council asking for the ground to be upgraded, and this month council committed to the plan.
A new soccer field is under construction at the Ducat Reserve site, intended for informal use for locals and community groups.
In the meantime, the evening soccer games continue on any spare patch of grass available.
“The kids have no issues where we play as long as they’re running around kicking soccer balls and socialising,” Ms Abbasi said.
Youth association to provide more opportunities
The connections made at the Ducat Reserve oval laid a foundation for a first-of-its-kind group to form in the Goulburn Valley, the GV Afghan Youth Association.
Since early 2021, young Afghan men and women primarily based in Shepparton have been working together as members of the association with the aim of empowering the next generation.
Habiba Ibrahimi studies social work and is one of 14 members, alongside Ms Abbasi and Ms Baqiri.
“We’ve got people from education, social work, physical education, [members] doing law, business, accounting — all sorts of backgrounds coming together and working together,” Ms Ibrahimi said.
Ms Baqiri said she hoped the association’s impact would leave a legacy to be passed on throughout generations.
They said it was the kind of peer support the young leaders wish they had during high school and university in Shepparton.
“Usually there’s external support in the community from services in school but usually that’s not enough, especially with cultural barriers, language barriers, that our community goes through,” Ms Abbasi said.
“So us not having that when we were young, we want to change that.”