A relatively new non league club, who were formed in 2018, have gone on to help transform lives of over 3,000 people with an initiative.
David Simmons’ life was forever changed when he was attacked by a 6-year-old boy with a knife at school, being left in shock by the ordeal, but his firsthand experience with one of the underlying problems in the UK helped him to understand the problem.
The UK has seen a rise in knife crime among young people, particularly teenagers with the last year seeing 30 young people lose their lives in London due to knife crime, and it’s no better in 2022.
Changing Lives FC: Inside the initiative transforming lives of UK’s migrants and refugeeshttps://t.co/1de7pl1tCU
— Mirror Football (@MirrorFootball) December 16, 2022
Simmons has seen firsthand the difficulties faced by some of the nation’s most vulnerable young children, but instead of being haunted from his trauma, Simmons has used it to create Changing Lives FC, an organisation that has transformed the lives of some the most vulnerable Harlow residents and Essex residents since 2018.
“I wanted to make a change,” Simmons told Mirror Football when discussing the organisation. “There’s not enough support for young people. But the issue that I experienced has now provided support to many other families.
“I went to a few of my colleagues who supported me [after the incident]. It went on further and progressed into supporting families, refugees and migrants. It’s now built up to where we’re running football teams and supporting more people than I could ever imagine.”
His initial focus was to help kids and get into schools, and over time, the club Changing Lives FC has expanded significantly. Simmons and the organisation now support more than 3000 people. They also run a variety of mentoring programs to help vulnerable children (typically between 4 and 11 years old) and their families.
The organisation’s rapid growth allowed them to help many people who moved to the UK. Simmons is proud that the organisation has six staff members and is now a full-time operation. Together, Changing Lives created the UK’s first football team entirely made up of refugees and migrants.
“Some of these projects don’t really take off, so I’m really glad I’ve managed to keep it going. You need a lot of support from the community and a lot of belief [to keep it going]. There’s been a lot of setbacks, too. But with that comes so many positive aspects.”
Simmons had to deal with a huge issue, trying to convince the council to back the initiative. “Trying to get the program started was one of our bigger issues,” Simmons explains. “They only gave us a small pot of money to start with, but due to it going so well and the demand, they knew they had to keep it going.
“Sadly, it’s the kind of things that happen in most schools, organisations or councils: they just want to sweep it under the carpet initially. They don’t really want to highlight the issue that they’re facing, but we’re really all about preventing. Prevention is key to stopping young people getting stabbed or murdered on the streets.”
Simmons and his organisation hope to have a positive effect on young children by going into schools, offering a variety of workshops, but know that football was the most effective engagement tool they had.
“It’s really important for us that we stop young people in their tracks early on. We do educational workshops, but we realised that sport is the fundamental hook to engage young people.”
Simmons and his team have been able to help others in need through Changing Lives FC’s growth, but there are new problems. Astonishingly, personal abuse was directed at Simmons and his family in response to their work with migrants and refugees. This has, unsurprisingly, had a devastating effect.
It was great to be featured on @BBCSport about our diverse and important team. Now more then ever we need to unite and support #refugees and #asylumseekers. I’m very proud of this team… (1/2) pic.twitter.com/wCwruqHoFf
— David Simmons (@DavidJSimmons) October 30, 2022
We should support all humans no matter the race, religion or sexuality. Why is there such a divide in supporting those that truly need it? We are an org that’s supports ‘ALL’ and we will not stop. Thank you @DanOgunshakin for reporting on such an important issue.❤️ (2/2) pic.twitter.com/PqmwOQ7hjK
— David Simmons (@DavidJSimmons) October 30, 2022
“Moving forward, the issues we’ve had working with refugees and migrants has been substantial. We’ve had a lot of trolls and abuse. I’ve had personal abuse and the players we work with get discriminated pretty much every Sunday. It’s an ongoing issue, but when the boys play matches they feel free and part of a community. Although there are a few issues, overall, they feel safe and happy and that’s whats important.”
Simmons however claims receiving abuse has only made him more determined to make an impact, admitting abuse directed at his family has been a tougher pill to swallow. “That’s when it’s like: ‘do I really want to continue this’?, because it’s upsetting my family members now,” he admits.
“[But] it’s made me stronger, though. It’s made me want to do more for these people who need help. It’s a small minority of people who are negative about it.”
Simmons’ men’s team is “one the largest programs” of the organisation, he stresses that Changing Lives FC aims to inspire more girls to play sport and has aspirations to start a women’s team.
Remitly, which is working with Changing Lives FC, has a statistic that shows that six goals England scored against Iran in their first win were scored by immigrants or the sons/grandsons. It’s an important point for Simmons.
“Not many people know that. I think it’s important to highlight statistics like this to show that migrants are so important in society and even in the England team. People are cheering on migrants, at the end of the day – we should be highlighting that.
“There are more migrants coming into the UK, so we are upscaling quite rapidly into different areas across Essex to create more teams and more spaces for these young people to develop themselves.”
Fethi Ahmed, club captain, is a great example of how personal development is central to the Changing Lives initiative. Ahmed, now 24, fled his homeland Egypt when he was just 16 years old after his family protested against the government.
“They don’t have the freedom of speech like they do in Europe,” Ahmed said. “So, you have to say what the government wants you to say. Most of my family, they didn’t like that; they felt a different way quite strongly, which is illegal. When you say something in Egypt that the government doesn’t like, you can get arrested or even shot. We knew we couldn’t stay in a country like that – we had to leave any way [we could].”
Ahmed, along with his family, fled to Saudi Arabia. He was encouraged to move to Europe to begin a new life. Ahmed arrived in England, unable to speak English and faced new challenges.
“It was a tough experience. You don’t really know anyone and you just sit in your room. I started meeting other people who came to the country like me and picked up English from them. We became friends and started to go out in the town and met more people and made more friends.”
Ahmed was referred to Simmons and Changing Lives FC by an old coach who Ahmed had worked with in 2017. Ahmed has been transformed by the initiative.
“It had a massive impact. Before they put me into the team, it was the same routine: wake up, go for breakfast and stay at home or in town all day as I couldn’t get a job because of immigration status. All that changed with the team with training sessions twice a week and then a game. Now, I go out into town and say hello to all the people I know. But it wasn’t like that [before].”
Ahmed was still learning the English language when he played his first game. Football, the sport he loved growing up in Egypt, was the ideal way to connect him with his teammates, despite the language barrier. Ahmed began to feel more like a member of the community as he learned more about the language through his studies.
Ahmed’s achievements have been so significant that he was made captain of the team last year. Ahmed is also one of six staff members that the initiative has employed. Ahmed runs morning classes and after-school clubs, and even manages the Basildon refugee/migrant football team.
He plays a pivotal role in spreading the message about Changing Lives FC. He is a perfect example of how this initiative can transform lives. What would his message be to those who are in similar situations?
“My message would be to think about yourself: how much better off would you be engaging with others and playing football in one years’ time compared to just sitting on your sofa. You won’t grow as a person. If you get involved, you’ll make friends, plenty of social events and games to look forward to. Sitting on your sofa won’t change anything. But playing could.”