Norwegian cyclist puts spotlight on refugees at World Cup finals stadium

News Stories, 26 May 2010

© UNHCR/B. Heidenstrom
'The Shirt,' made of up of 600 football shirts from around the world, is displayed before 70,000 fans at the opening of Soccer City, where the World Cup final will be played on July 11.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, May 26 (UNHCR) Bjorn Heidenstrom has almost reached the end of a marathon journey that has seen him bike through Europe and Africa over the past year to raise awareness about refugees among football players and supporters.

The former professional footballer from Norway arrived in Johannesburg just in time to attend last Saturday's gala opening by South Africa's President Jacob Zuma of Soccer City, the new 94,700-seat stadium that will host the June 11 opening and the big final a month later of the 2010 World Cup.

Heidenstrom, who set out from Oslo last June 20 (World Refuge Day), received a special surprise when a giant football shirt was brought out onto the pitch where some 70,000 people had gathered for the ceremony.

As well as spreading awareness about refugees and UNHCR during a journey that has taken him through 35 countries, Heidenstrom has also collected jerseys from professional and amateur football teams with the goal of sewing them together to make the world's biggest football shirt.

"I am crying right now!" exclaimed Heidenstrom as he gazed down at the Soccer City pitch. The shirts had been sewn together the previous day at the request of Kjetil Siem, chief executive officer of the South African Premier League. Siem is also from Norway and is a former director of the Oslo team Valerenga, where Heidenstrom is the media and marketing manager.

Before a championship game got under way to inaugurate the stadium, President Zuma signed a bright yellow jersey of South Africa's national team, popularly known as Bafana Bafana. This will become part of Heidenstrom's giant shirt, which could be checked by officials from Guinness World Records.

Heidenstrom is now working on getting "The Shirt" displayed in prominent areas around South Africa, including events organized by UNHCR to commemorate this year's World Refugee Day, so that as many people as possible can see it and learn about refugees.

His ultimate goal is to have the shirt on display in Soccer City during the World Cup final on July 11. "Just imagine how many people in the world will see it and think about refugees," the 41-year-old Norwegian reflected.

On his journey down through Africa, Heidenstrom has been inspired and encouraged by the stories of the forcibly displaced people that he has met. "I was especially struck by the Leopards football team from Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi which qualified to join the Malawian premier league," he said.

The remarkable team is made up of refugees from different nationalities. Heidenstrom noted that they had shared a common goal to win. "And now they are heroes in the camp. That is just inspirational."

UNHCR has been providing Heidenstrom with logistical assistance during his trip. Several top professional players, including Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry as well as Steven Gerrard, Francesco Totti and Fernando Torres of Liverpool have signed shirts for him. Other celebrity supporters include Sir Elton John and top international football officials, Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini.

By Tina Ghelli in Johannesburg, South Africa

For more on Heidenstrom's journey, go to




UNHCR country pages

A World Cup Goal

Cycling for refugees

South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

From Nairobi to Osh, Bishkek to Mexico City, refugees celebrate World Refugee Day 2009.

June 20, 2009. Refugees, aid workers and other well -wishers turned out all around the world to recognize the 42 million people displaced by conflict and persecution on World Refugee Day. From a traditional bamboo dance in India to a football match between Somalis and Iraqis in Syria, the celebrations were testimony to the enduring spirit of some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

From Nairobi to Osh, Bishkek to Mexico City, refugees celebrate World Refugee Day 2009.

Lebanon: Keep on PlayingPlay video

Lebanon: Keep on Playing

A Syrian refugee, once a national player, revives his dream of playing and coaching football.
Ethiopia: All AlonePlay video

Ethiopia: All Alone

Kicking a football around, they seem carefree and happy. But these children are refugees, many of them unaccompanied, and they face a host of problems.
Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South AfricaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South Africa

Living in Pretoria as a refugee or asylum-seeker is challenging. Most either live rough on the streets or in cramped apartments in townships. There are also tensions with locals because of the perception that foreigners get a better deal than South African citizens.