French rugby veterans tackle refugee vineyard integration |


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In his previous life in Syria Hussam worked as an elite journalist and athlete. “I have been the three-time Syrian kickboxing champion,” he says. However, the conflict in the country prompted his career and sporting ambitions. “I was hit in the chest, and then I stopped exercising.”

Forced to leave, Houssem took refuge in France, where he found work in the vineyards in the Bordeaux region, where he worked as a seasonal worker at Château Pédesclaux, which produces Pauillac, one of Bordeaux’s most famous “Grands Crus” wine.

Hussam is one of dozens of refugees who provide a vital service to an industry that often finds it difficult to find sufficient labor at harvest time, a shortage that has become more serious since Covid-19 The pandemic has seen travel restrictions make it difficult for migrant workers to enter the country.



© UNHCR / Kate Thompson-Gorry

Hussam, a Syrian refugee, participates in the rugby training that brings together refugees and the local community.

Rugby to the rescue

“There was a lot of uncertainty about our ability to find people to work among the vineyards, but the vines were not waiting for us,” says Vincent Bach-Grappelsen, Artistic Director of Château Pédesclaux. “We have to follow the cycle of seasons.”

In search of a solution, the vineyard turned to Ovale Citoyen, a local association that uses rugby (Bordeaux is not only a popular wine region, but also the heart of French rugby) and other sports as a way to boost team building and engagement.

Since the start of the COVID crisis, the association has also provided seasonal work to people in need, including refugees, on a project called “Drop in the Fields,” which is a game of words indicating dropping targets, and a way to score points in American football.



© UNHCR / Kate Thompson-Gorry

Dozens of refugees fill the work gap during the grape harvest.

Ninety refugees helped bring grapes during the last harvest, and 15 others took part in training for other vine-growing jobs, such as driving tractors, that allow for year-round work. Ovale Citoyen also offers training for a wide range of jobs in the winemaking industry, as well as social and legal support.

Sports play a central role, in part because Ovale Citoyen was created by former Union Bordeaux Bègles professional rugby players (the word “oval” refers to the oval of rugby ball). The group also promotes soccer and boxing.

“Rugby has social values, values ​​from the heart, and it seems very important to us that refugees can benefit from them,” said Jean-Francois Boyce, co-founder of Ovale Citoyen, explaining that the association works to promote social inclusion. And the idea that everyone has a place on the field regardless of social status, level of education, or body composition. “Whatever a person’s origin, religion, sexual orientation, or even his history, every person has the right to happiness.”

“Ovale Citoyen encouraged me to return to sports,” says Hussam. “Rugby has given me many important things: it has given me connection to the local community, new friends, and it has given me hope.”


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