Hit Like a Girl: Rugby Opens Borders & Gives Lessons in Persistence


It wasn’t easy. Practices were rained out. Schedules conflicted. But Rugby Opens Borders (ROB) didn’t quit until young boys and girls – refugees and locals – found new families on and off the pitch.




How to Make Friends: Tackle Them

In summer of 2015, people from all over the world were arriving at Vienna’s train stations. Some were escaping war-torn countries; others were seeking new opportunities for growth – but all were in need of a sense of belonging to their new city. That’s when ROB founder and player at Rugby Union Donau, Udo Richson, had an idea.

“Rugby builds families.” He told me when we first met last spring. “You engage in a collective sacrifice for one another. There are no differences between you and your teammates – nationality, language, religion – it’s all the same on the pitch.”

So Udo put together a team of individuals experienced in coaching, pedagogy, social work, economics, and media relations, and gave life to ROB – an organization aimed at integrating young refugees in Vienna. It does so not only through gathering refugees and locals on the pitch, but also around the dinner table, in the movie theaters, and in free tutoring sessions. In other words, the young boys who joined ROB had found their new family and, within months, ROB had gathered a team of committed young refugees who showed up for training at the Rugby Union Donau sports center in the Prater every week. Speaking German on and off the pitch so as to encourage linguistic development, ROB’s coaches have since taken on the role of mentoring the youth in their athletic, educational, and personal endeavors – a role that is arguably necessary for anyone in such formative years.




Something is… Missing

But there was a glaring gap in ROB’s model when I first met Udo last spring. “And the girls?” I asked.

“We’re trying.” Udo responded, clearly having already noticed and been troubled by the fact ROB was missing a girl’s team. “But it’s not easy.”

Getting the girls involved in ROB meant a different set of obstacles. For example, where many of the girls come from, their communities had told them that sports were only for the boys. For girls, playing sports, especially one as contact as rugby, was unusual. But noting that the girls already had schedules packed with yoga, football, skiing, and German courses, it was clear that trying something new wasn’t their main obstacle.

“You could see the excitement on the girls’ faces when we were explaining ROB to them,” Ana Ruiz, or “Mini” as she goes by, told me. Mini has taken charge of ROB’s initiative to build a girl’s team in the last year. “They’re just children, excited to get out and try new things. So you could really feel that they wanted to get involved.” She told us of her visits to Vienna’s refugee centers, from where ROB’s young players are recruited.

So where did their hesitance for ROB come from? “One of the biggest difficulties was recruiting enough girls so that the boys’ and girls’ practices could be kept separate yet substantive,” Mini told us. “When we proposed mixed training sessions, the girls were a bit hesitant to train together with the boys.” She recalled. “They were much more eager to establish their own team first.”

So ROB worked towards establishing a girl’s team with persistence. “We just kept going to the refugee housing facilities and tossing the ball around with the girls. We picked the girls up for trainings, and we accompanied them from the facilities to the field. We showed them videos of women’s teams from their regions playing rugby to normalize the image in their mind. We supplied them with the necessary clothing to take part in trainings. We got their phone numbers to keep them informed on the dates and times of trainings and matches. We personalized the connection between us and them so that we were laughing and chatting whenever we did meet. And finally, we established separate practices for the girls so that the ones who were uncomfortable around the boys could have their own space.” Mini explained. “It was a process, but it worked!”

Today, a team of committed girls consistently show up to training every week. Mini, who coaches the team alongside Sophie Koller and Charlotte Schönherr – all members of the Rugby Union Donau Women’s Team – helps put together fun, interactive trainings for the girls to build their skills while ensuring an enjoyable process of becoming a rugby player. And after each training, the boys, girls, men, and women of ROB get together over a meal cooked by ROB volunteers as laughs and smiles fill the room.



Rugby & Ramadan

As such, the girl’s and boy’s programs continue to grow both in numbers and cohesion with each month. Even Ramadan, which can be exhausting for some members who are fasting from sunrise to sundown, was seen as an opportunity to celebrate collectively. Rather than cancel the trainings, ROB moved them to the evenings, so that afterward, volunteers and members could break the fast together—a truly bonding experience.

While the boys’ program won the 2016 World Rugby Award for Character and recently attended the United World Games in Klagenfurt, where they were able to play teams from all over the world, the girls’ team envisions a similar trajectory of success and recognition over the coming years. The next step is to incorporate the ROB girls’ team with the Austrian girls’ teams so as to further encourage integration and skills development. While the boys’ program has come so far in its relationships and success, the girls team is on its way to doing just the same.

If people looking to create positive social impact can learn anything from ROB’s journey to where they stand now, it’s to keep getting up and moving forward, no matter how many times you get tackled.





Sheeva Seyfi
Sheeva Sefyi A Californian native with an affinity for words that are nicely strung together, German-speaking cities, football, and chocolate cake.

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