Football club helps international students kick isolation

A local football club in Groningen is promoting integration by recruiting international students. Two Mamio club teams have become a home for RUG students who are now beloved by the local community.
By Candela Martínez

Last year, at least 25,000 Groningen students reportedly felt lonely in the city. And  according a recent Annual International Student Survey, international students in the Netherlands feel excluded and isolated from their Dutch peers.

The university has  taken measures to help with integration, including focusing on ‘inclusiveness’ as a theme for the recent lustrum celebrations. But people are also launching initiatives to further integration beyond the academic bubble. Local football club v.v. Mamio has established two international student teams in an effort to integrate isolated international students into a big part of Dutch culture: club sports.

The Surinamese word mamio translates into something like ‘patchwork quilt’ or lappendeken in Dutch, a blanket made of diverse pieces of fabric stitched together to craft a mishmash of colours, textures, and sizes. It’s a fitting metaphor, because Mamio advocates the idea of growth through diversity – on the pitch.

A German and an Indonesian walk onto a field…

This isn’t the set-up for a joke: German International Business student Steffen Hünker (22) and Indonesian Chemical Engineering student Ikra Halki (20) both head out onto the field, wearing Mamio’s yellow and blue with pride. Mamio has two international teams where RUG students hailing from all over the world come together.

‘Once I counted thirteen nationalities playing together’, says Steffen. Ikra says the football pitch gives you insight into cultural differences that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. He thinks playing on such a multicultural team teaches a very practical kind of cultural competency. ‘It’s interesting to learn from each other’, he says. And it’s surprisingly easy, agrees Steffen, because on the field, ‘cultural barriers disappear. You develop your own language out there. Even if you don’t speak proper English, you can understand each other.’

More than sports

The local club really started attracting international student amateurs two and a half years ago, when Belgian Master student Adrian Enders (24) first joined. ‘When I came to Groningen to study business economics, I wanted to play in a club like I used to do back home. One day I saw a post on Facebook from a coach looking for players, and I got into a mixed team with Dutch and international students at Mamio.’

Adrian ended up coaching an international team after a coach left the club before the end of the season. For Adrian, it’s about more than sports; it’s about crafting a new kind of community. And he says Mamio shatters the barrier between international students and locals in a very special way. The club members have become really invested in their international students: ‘As soon as people arrive, they always ask: have the students played already? How did they play? In terms of community, we bring something different to the club. We have to keep promoting integration within the team and within the community – it’s starting to pay off.’

And because the club teams travel for matches, international students get a chance to explore the country like locals instead of like tourists. ‘A lot of the Dutch culture I’m experiencing comes from visiting different Groningen areas or other Dutch cities and villages for a match’, says Steffen.

Steffen and Ikra fully recommend joining any kind of club in the city to fight isolation. Ikra says that playing for Mamio has helped him establish a group of real friends and make important connections in the city – something most international students don’t have. ‘It’s easy to break down the barriers’, says Steffen, ‘because once you’re in a club people know you and there’s no judgement or prejudice.’


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