22 March 2012

Muamba: Symbol of refugee struggle and success

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“Joy as Muamba says first word” reads the Daily Star front-page headline. “Muamba speaks,” splashes The Sun. “Muamba’s Words of Hope,” reads the Daily Express back-page.

This morning’s newspapers capture the sense of emotion and hope for 23-year-old Fabrice Muamba so widely shared by football fans across Britain, and by everyone else moved by the news of the Bolton Wanderers player’s fight for life, after his cardiac arrest during a televised FA Cup tie on Saturday evening. The tabloid headlines show that the near tragic incident has made the young footballer a focus of national attention. The stricken star is now Britain’s favourite refugee.

It took that shocking collapse to bring Muamba’s extraordinary life story to national attention. Overnight, Muamba had become a powerful symbol of the virtues that we want our national game, and our society, to uphold, but which many fear are lost if football puts greed and money first.

The tale of Muamba’s arrival in Britain from war-torn Congo as an 11-year-old refugee without a word of English to football’s Premier league is not just the story of sporting talent. The dedicated spirit with which he has approached not just the game but his broader education captures a not uncommon tale of immigrant optimism and self-improvement, as Amol Rajan notes in his column for the i paper.

The emotional but dignified reaction across the game was quickly seized upon too as an antidote to fears that excessive tribal rivalry spills over into hatred.


Perhaps Muamba symbolises something else too: an everyday story of refugee contribution that we do not stop to notice, precisely because it reflects successful integration into our society, and so does not stand out.

There is nothing unusual about a talented African-born footballer playing in the English league. More than three dozen Premiership footballers were born in Africa, and they have had many different routes to English football, joining youth development programmes at the biggest clubs as teenagers, or being spotted playing in the Belgian and French leagues.

Nobody batted an eyelid at the young black defender being picked for England. That was once a novelty when Viv Anderson became the first black player to be capped in 1978, and remained an issue of contention into the mid-1980s, as we argued over who “we” now are. The question has long been settled.  There was no contention about the Kinshasha-born Muamba being given the armband to captain England at youth level. (Even those who have campaigned against some foreign-born athletes as “plastic” Brits have tried to take care to exclude those who arrived as children).  The Daily Mirror did, ahead of the European Under-21 championship, run a positive feature about his remarkable life story, but England fans will have been interested mostly in whether his skills on the pitch delivered, not about his personal history.

Refugees are not given much of a voice in our media discussions about asylum and immigration. What many say is that they want to play a full part in contributing to their new society. Muamba’s reaction on captaining this England team captured the emotion which others have expressed on receiving their passport and new citizen status, sometimes taking part in a citizenship ceremony.

Just occasionally, a feature on political leaders – such as Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg or Michael Howard – will capture the extraordinary perils which their parents and grandparents faced before finding sanctuary in Britain.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury announced his retirement, the favourite to replace him happens to be a refugee, John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, who came to this country from Uganda. His status as the early front runner has much more to do with his charismatic public presence and high media profile than that background.

The positive contribution of refugees mostly takes place outside of the public eye. In some ways, this is as it should be. You do not know, when you go to your local Indian (often Bangladeshi) restaurant; or your local hospital, you will not know which of the waiters, doctors and nurses have come here as refugees.

But that does mean that our public debates can be skewed towards coverage of refugees before they are able to contribute to British society, when they are applying for status, rather than in the subsequent life.

The strength of goodwill towards Fabrice Muamba, as he continues to recover, captures how powerfully we think of the young man as one of us, belonging fully to our society.

Few refuges will have the same levels of extraordinary sporting talent.  What
we should want for them all is what they want for themselves: the chance to contribute, and play a full part in society using whatever skills they have.

by Sunder Katwala

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