When Matilda found out that the unaccompanied refugee children she worked with weren’t being accepted into the local football clubs, she saw only one option: learning to play football so she could coach them herself.
The 44-year-old had been working with minors under care of the Swedish state for over 20 years. These children had often been subject to substance or sexual abuse, had committed crimes, or were experiencing psychosocial problems.
The children had been put under the care of the state, according to Swedish law, and in Matilda's words: "We take care of them, to prevent them from indulging in self-destruction.
"I often think about those kids living in custody and what more could society do to help them," she says. "They are victims of their realities and deserve a better life. I ask myself why there are kids living in these situations at all, why there can’t be a way to detect their problems before they reach a severe level."
As more and more refugees began to arrive in Sweden, Matilda was inspired to carry on her work, this time with refugee children.
Many families and unaccompanied minors arrived in Gothenburg and sought help at Biskopsgården (Biskopskolan) Landamäreskolan, the school where Matilda had been working. Over time, she got more and more involved, and has now been working with refugee children for five years.
"I started running refugee accommodation to shelter newcomers in our beautiful but segregated city. Right now I’m running one that has 26 kids," explains Matilda. "These days I'm with them almost 24/7!"
"Refugee kids are left alone," she says. "They are not part of the conflicts happening in their homelands, and many are sent away on boats by their parents, to save their lives. Others could be parentless. At the end of the day these kids are helpless."
Matilda treats the children as if they were her own.
"I imagine: What if my son, Adam, was in their situation: how would he feel, and how would I too? If my son had to flee, I’d wish for him to meet humane people, who’d take care of him. That’s the way I treat these kids."
And her involvement goes beyond offering the children a roof over their heads.
Many of the youngsters were avid football fans, and asked if she could set up a refugee football club.
"At first I said no, because we have around 160 football clubs in Gothenburg, so didn’t think we needed to make a new one," Matilda says. "But in fact, they couldn’t join any of the clubs."
Whenever the social workers sent the children to a club, the kids were sent away, for reasons including lack of language skills, not having clean clothes or not wearing sneakers.
"It made them desperate, and I think it could have driven them to hate themselves," says Matilda. "At this point I remembered the minors I had worked with who were under care of the state, and how they could become self-destructive, for many reasons but most of all due to social alienation and community refusal. If you have no parents to take care of you, then you can lose the chance to have equal opportunities.
"For refugees I think the situation could be even more acute. Because they don’t speak the language, the sense of alienation could be doubled."
First, Matilda tried to contact football coaches to provide training for the unaccompanied minors, so the teens could gain the skills to join the local clubs. However, most of the answers were negative, either because the trainers had no free time, or because the refugees couldn't understand Swedish.
Rather than giving up, Matilda learned how to play football and coach herself, devoting herself to training the children. For her, it was the only option - she says: "Otherwise, these kids wouldn't have had the chance to join any of the city’s 160 football clubs."
"At first, the kids didn’t have much experience. For example, whenever I asked any of them where they find themselves in a team, they all answered: ‘Centre’ – but it doesn’t work like that!
But now we have a team called Sandarna BK, where 120 unaccompanied refugees regularly train. Finally, we have a kind of system, and are in contact with the city clubs."
Though Matilda was the only coach when the club started out, it is now run by ten coaches, who train the youngsters until they are qualified enough to join the other clubs in the city.