How sports are helping the global refugee crisis

Syrian refugee athlete and torch bearer Ibrahim Al-Hussein holds the Olympic flame at the Elaionas camp in Athens, Greece, months ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

The global refugee crisis is one of the largest humanitarian issues our society is currently facing. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are approximately 65.6 million refugees forcibly displaced globally. More than half are under the age of 18. We live in a world where almost 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution, resulting in more than 28,000 each day. Many have ended up in impoverished nations in Africa and the Middle East. For many refugees, their hope is to reach Europe or the United States, but large segments of these regions do not welcome more refugees. In the U.S. alone, President Donald Trump is not only trying to severely restrict entry into the United States but his recent decision on DACA makes 800,000 "dreamers" vulnerable to deportation.

This huge number of refugees is a challenge that will require an enormous amount of collaboration and support to overcome. Although I recognize that much of this collaboration must be led by the governments of various countries, I also firmly believe in the power of sports to impact society and positively impact the lives of refugees.

From very visible, large-scale efforts, such as coordinating a refugee team for the summer Olympics in 2016 to small organizations that aim to help refugees fit in and normalize their lives through sports, substantial segments of the world of sports are definitely showing their support for refugees.

The 2016 Olympic refugee team was a wonderful and powerful global demonstration of support and awareness of refugees. Some members of the team are still competing on the world stage as recently as last month in the World Athletics Championships. These athletes participated in the Olympic Games under the Olympic flag as an effort by the International Olympic Committee to "draw the attention of the world to the problems of the refugees," as IOC president Thomas Bach stated. This initiative by the IOC was incredibly successful as it introduced the 10 members of the refugee team to the world and provided an opportunity for people to hear and understand their struggles and simply who they are as individuals.

For instance, through her participation on the refugee team, the world became acquainted with Yusra Mardini, whose unbelievable story of swimming for three and a half hours, alongside her sister, to save everyone on their boat after it broke down during their attempt to escape war-torn Syria reveals the determination and heart of a champion. I believe the ability of the Olympic refugee team to resonate with and inspire people across the globe speaks to the transcendent nature of sports and its unparalleled ability to unite individuals and groups despite cultural or societal barriers.

Mardini recently became the youngest goodwill ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Upon her appointment, the IOC's Bach said, "It is my hope that, through her role as UNHCR goodwill ambassador, Yusra will continue to inspire refugees, reminding us that anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit." The Olympic Refugee team was also celebrated on the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on April 6. That day recognizes sports' power to promote peace and justice.

Since the Olympics there has been an encouraging number of stories that have demonstrated how refugees are being included in sports. These stories have been of both international and domestic efforts and have shown that a wide variety of sports that are welcoming refugees.

Just this past month, sports activities involving Africans both in refugee camps and some who settled in the United States and Australia brought attention to this cause. In Burundi, the Friendship Games were organized for refugees from Burundi, Rwanda and Congo. Adult refugees were taught how to coach and referee games between the children.

With donations raised in Northern Ireland, refugee children from South Sudan were organized to play soccer together in northern Uganda in a Peace and Reconciliation Cup. The event was organized to heal tensions in the camp, which has an estimated 600,000 refugees.

Refugees from East Africa who settled in Arizona formed a soccer club called Maricopa Mulenge sponsored by Sporting Arizona FC. The refugees not only get to play but are also being given an opportunity to continue their education.

Merrylands SFC is a soccer team in Australia composed of refugees from Sierra Leone. With great success in their league, organizers hope this will serve as an inspiration for integration within Australia. Merrylands SFC has created an off-the-field group called Parar United Youth Group to involve and encourage African children in Australia.

Another story is of a boxing club in Hamburg, Germany, that was founded by Hussein Ismael. a Kurdish refugee. The club is called BC Hanseat and has seen significant growth in its membership since advertising to refugees who settled there. The club benefits refugees by providing them a social atmosphere to interact with other refugees and a place where they can learn about the German culture. The club has been quite successful, winning medals at the local, regional and national levels, and has actually encouraged other sporting organizations in Germany to open their doors to refugees.

Furthermore, Afghan refugees have been rapidly joining German cricket clubs since arriving, tripling its membership. As a result English cricket clubs have donated materials to continue to foster this increased interest in the sport. As a result of this inclusion, one of these German teams won the Division 2 cricket league that was led by two Afghani players.

Soccer seems to have played a leading role in supporting refugees in many countries. This certainly may speak to the global nature of sports, but its impact on refugees is undoubtedly widespread. It is particularly striking because soccer has been the sport in which the most racist incidents have taken place in recent years, as noted in my article on the year in racism and sports. And it is even more striking because of the general hostility to refugees in many European nations.

In Switzerland, the PCi Camorino soccer project was created to break down barriers between locals and refugees by having them play soccer. After training, the players received jerseys from the local soccer club as a way for them to represent them and to help the locals recognize them as part of the community. Moreover, in an area heavily populated with refugees in Greece, the state migration agency organized an opportunity for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to attend a local amateur soccer match. This simple effort was positive for refugees, who reported finally feeling normal in Greece.

Soccer has been important for aiding refugees who are adjusting to life here in the United States as well. A nonprofit organization, Soccer Without Borders, helps child refugees in more than 40 countries adjust to new environments as soccer provides them a chance to make friends, learn about the local culture and take their minds off the lives they left behind. In the United States, Soccer Without Borders recently supported 100 youth refugees in Baltimore, helping them become a part of their local community.

In addition to programs or organizations that are including refugees through participation in a particular sport, there are also many unique efforts utilizing sports to connect refugees to the communities in which they are living. An organization in New Zealand called Ignite Sports Fusion, for example, hosted a three-day program that brings together children of refugees and locals. Moreover, a nonprofit organization in Canada known as Social Sport strives to reach a similar goal. Social Sport allows refugees to choose their sport and then provides them with opportunities to play these sports in their surrounding community by working with regional governments and local sporting organizations. The nonprofit also monitors the children's progress and hosts monthly events for children to interact with one another. A final unique effort that I believe emphasizes unifying over dividing is an annual Run for Refugees in North Haven, Connecticut, which has reported that registration has doubled after the Trump travel ban was implemented and that the race has received more than $150,000 in donations. The registration was so large that more than 1,000 people had to be turned away due to capacity limits. The nonprofit uses the run to raise money to help vetted refugees find housing and jobs in the country.

Personally, as a lifelong advocate of the power of sports to bring people together and build community, I have been encouraged to read the stories I have just briefly shared. If you are involved in sports, I hope that you will take action to ensure that it provides opportunity for everyone, including refugees. Even if there are not refugees in your community it is vital that sports be a tool for good and that it be inclusive of all people.

Todd Currie contributed to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.