With over 30 countries and cultures represented throughout the club, Willowburn FC in the Darling Downs region is proudly promoting the message of diversity within the Queensland football community.
For Willowburn President Gerard Alchin, reinforcing the importance of diversity and inclusion is key to allowing all players to broaden their horizons, and their knowledge of the world game.
“It’s great when we look at differences in culture and how other people see the world, I think it probably makes clubs stronger because of the differences,” Alchin said.
“Particularly for players that have been in Australia for a long time or for their whole life, it opens their eyes to the global game, and not just in a football sense, but also the world.”
With the club entering its 73rd year, Alchin said Willowburn FC had invested in supporting diversity within their club community over the last few years.
“As Australia has gotten more multicultural and has obviously welcomed people from overseas, I think that has naturally flowed into sporting clubs and communities,” he said.
“It’s just great to see that it’s got its own momentum now and there are things like language barriers, but football seems to be that language that everybody speaks.”
Across the club’s junior and senior teams, Iraq, Syria, Brazil and Ecuador are just some of the countries that are heavily represented.
One of these players is Sulaiman Zandinan, a senior player for Willowburn who first joined the club in 2020.
A Yazidi youth from Iraq, Zandinan first came to Australia in 2018, escaping the war plaguing his country.
“I was six years of age when I started playing football which I learned from my school friends however, unfortunately, I stopped playing in 2014 when we got attacked by ISIS,” he said.
“ISIS took my family between the borders of Iraq and Syria and held us there for one year and seven months.
“I absolutely admire Australia very much because day by day, my life is changing [for the] better.”
Zandinan said his experience with Willowburn FC has allowed him to grow as a player in a respectful and supportive environment.
“I see Willowburn as my second home. I absolutely love playing with them because everyone is supportive, respectful, and friendly.”
While the club has strived to provide a safe space for participants of all backgrounds, Alchin also credits the players for taking the initiative to cultivate a welcoming environment for everyone.
“We have a number of senior players that have been around the club that will speak the language of those families that are arriving,” he said.
“One example was on our registration day for our juniors, we actually had a lot of our senior players help translate for families because they came down and it was all very new to them, signing up and registering.
“It goes a long way in helping new families from new cultures and new countries feel more comfortable because sometimes it can be very daunting if you arrive at a new club, when you arrive at a new community, and no one speaks the language, or have trouble understanding.”
Another player that credits the support he has received since joining the club is Ilyas Alazeez, who is also a Yazidi youth from Iraq.
“In Iraq, having a football was something very special because not all people could afford to buy a football,” he said.
“My brother, Sameer, was given a football from my uncle, so he and I used to play together. Since then, I have held the love of football in my heart.”
For Alazeez, the support from Willowburn FC has opened doors for him to learn more about football since his arrival in Australia.
“This is my second year, but I feel like I have been since forever due to the love and support I get from the staff and teammates.
“At Willowburn, I feel like I belong to this place, Willowburn has been a real game changer in making me more connections through sport.”
As Willowburn’s mission to promote diversity within the club continues, Alchin expressed his happiness at seeing the community band together to provide a safe and accepting space for everyone.
“From a President’s point of view, I’ve just really enjoyed seeing how football can bring communities and cultures together, and I think that’s when you talk about football or food or music, they seem to be languages that transcend cultures and countries,” Alchin said.
“A young guy that came from fairly tragic circumstances in the war in Syria, sadly he can’t play because of injuries that he sustained, but he just loves being around the club and he loves helping out with the junior teams, and I love that a football club, a grassroots club like us, can provide a space where they can find happiness and they can find joy, given some of them have had fairly tragic upbringings.
“I think that’s the role of every club, not just to provide a field to play but also to provide a community so people can have belonging and acceptance and to some degree find a purpose as well.”