Young Artists Design Footballs to Support Refugee Sport Programmes

Sports & cultural activities

Young Artists Design Footballs to Support Refugee Sport Programmes

06 December 2021

The five winning football designs of the 2021 Youth with Refugees Art Contest. From the bottom, in clockwise order, the designs are by: Skarly (a 12-year-old Venezuelan refugee living in Brazil), James (a 10-year-old from Ireland), Gerald (a 23-year-old Cameroonian refugee living in Italy, Hala (a 14-year-old Palestinian living in Saudi Arabia), and Nadira (a 16-year-old Afghan refugee living in India)

When the Global Refugee Forum first took place in 2019, a Coalition of UN Member States, civil society organizations, and national and international sport federations came together in support of empowering refugees through sport. Acknowledging the transformative power of sport in helping refugees rebuild their lives, the Sports Coalition pledged to ensure equal access to sport facilities, initiatives, and competitions for all refugees at all athletic levels. 

Since the first Global Refugee Forum, many others – namely, young people – have joined the effort to envision a better world for refugees through sport. In 2021, the second edition of UNHCR’s Youth with Refugees Art Contest invited youth from around the world to harness their imagination in illustrating of the theme “Together through Sport”, emphasizing the the importance of sport in boosting resilience, providing a sense of hope, and fostering unity between refugees and host communities. 

1,600 young people from over 100 countries participated by submitting artworks and designs for the footballs of their dreams. One-third of the participants were themselves refugees and people forced to flee. Along with their drawings, participants also shared messages of solidarity based on their personal experiences. Nadira, a 16-year-old Afghan refugee living in India, wrote: 

“I was born a differently abled person. The sports world makes us, especially refugees and people who are called disabled, endeavour for the best. I have been passionate about drawing from an early age as it provides me with a tranquil space to freely express myself and the courage to face and overcome any issue in my life. I drew this football to show the inclusive aspect of sport and how it is capable of bonding people together. I wanted to show how sport can transform people’s lives along with bringing hope and joy to everyone, everywhere.”


Hands drwaing
Nadira drawing- © Alive and Kicking


The creative expression of these young artists has garnered the praise of many, including professional footballers, in the international community. Canadian football legend, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and former refugee Alphonso Davies said, “The designs were very powerful. It’s amazing to see the vision of these kids and how they perceive a united society.” Davies was also a member of an ad hoc jury of athletes, journalists, and artists that convened to select five global winners for 2021 Youth with Refugees Art Contest. 

In addition to engaging young people in advocating for refugees and highlighting the importance of sport in improving the lives of the refugees, the contest also demonstrated the power of ethical partnerships. 

The designs of the five global winners were made into real footballs by the not-for-profit ball manufacturer Alive and Kicking and placed online for sale to help fund UNHCR sport programs for refugees.


leather cutouts
The production process of the balls includes first printing the designs onto pentagonal and hexagonal locally sourced leather cutouts. Afterwards the cutouts are hand-stitched by local employees and inflated into a real football. Design is by James, a global winner and 10-year old from Ireland. © Alive and Kicking


By using leather that is locally sourced in Kenya and employing refugees and other vulnerable communities to aid in the production of the balls, Alive and Kicking also generates income and provides safe livelihood opportunities for disadvantaged populations in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

The launch of the Youth with Refugees Art Contest and the partnership with Alive and Kicking have also had other positive ripple effects. Over 2,000 footballs were sold to UNHCR offices and individual customers to fund refugee access to sport facilities and equipment. 


A girl drawing
Nadira, who lives with her mother and six siblings in an apartment in Delhi, expresses her feelings and emotions through her art. She is a gifted painter and illustrator, and her dream is to be the world’s youngest professional designer. © Alive and Kicking


For young winners, like Nadira, participation in the art contest has opened doors to new opportunities. After gaining recognition as one the five global winners, she was able to further her drawing skills and receive training by Danielle Mastrion, a painter and muralist based in New York City. In the upcoming year, Nadira will be illustrating the 2022 diary of the UNHCR office in India. 

As we approach the second anniversary of the Global Refugee Forum, we honor the efforts of the international community, including those of young people, in supporting sporting activities for refugees. Refugees deserve the same opportunities to lead healthy and joyful lives, including through sports.