When the Arsenal and England centre-back Leah Williamson steps up to speak at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals summit on Tuesday she will feel a very different level of scrutiny to the pressure she feels when she steps out on to the pitch. “Head up, face forward, don’t drop your Ts,” she says with a grin beforehand.
Williamson is the first England women’s national team player to take the stage at the UN, and it’s an opportunity that may not have come around had the anterior cruciate ligament injury she sustained in April and which ruled her out of the World Cup not afforded her the time to visit the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world.
That is where Williamson travelled to in August, visiting the joint initiative of Save the Children and the Arsenal Foundation that gives girls in the camp the chance to engage with a variety of programmes through football.
“I’ve been speaking about going to Jordan for a while now,” Williamson says from her New York hotel room. “They’ve been on the radar. I’ve worked with the foundation, and obviously been involved in the Coaching for Life programme they run for a while now.
“So, as soon as I got injured, the way I sat down to deal with it – because it’s ultimately just a slog and you enter into it to come out the other side – was I planned out everything. We looked at when I needed to take rests, then we planned these trips around that. So it’s been great to be able to tick boxes that I wanted to do, but also give back in a way like that as well.”
When Williamson finally gets back on the pitch, the desire is to keep a balance that allows the 26-year-old to do more of the community and foundation work. “When you’re injured you demonstrate to yourself that there is a balance to be found,” the England captain says. “But it’s all about performance, it’s about being ready every day. You can do it [find that balance], but with the scheduling of games it makes it so much harder. So, not that I would ever be happy to be injured, but this time and these experiences and giving back is important.”
Hearing about the lives of the girls they work with can be tough. “I find it really hard,” Williamson says. “Because naturally, in the world, when somebody tells you a problem you want to try and help fix it – and it’s obviously not as simple as that. The hardest moments were talking with parents in some of the sessions aimed at helping them understand why their daughters should be allowed to participate in sport.
“It started off as a really great conversation, just listening to their views on how it’s changed for them, and how much they love their daughters being involved. Then, one of the fathers basically said because they have this confidence now and they’re making their way in the world, then maybe he has to leave to seek an opportunity for them. We all know what leaving a refugee camp means, the risk to life, the travelling, potentially across the sea.
“It hit me, because they have these dreams but ultimately circumstance and the lottery of birthplaces has set them back compared to us. It breaks my heart every time because none of us know what comes next for them.”
Williamson is used to telling girls to follow their dreams and to find their passion, but she can’t say these things in the Za’atari camp. “You can’t say to a kid: ‘Just dream as big as you want to.’ I can’t provide that reassurance for them, which is hard.”
Football camps there cannot provide a certain future, but it can provide a sense of escape. “That is universal,” Williamson says. “When I step on a pitch, no matter what I think about beforehand, as soon as I step on that pitch it all goes away. It’s not a conscious effort, it just takes all your worries away and all your thoughts. And I think, for them, that is obviously just a massive, massive thing, especially combined with the resilience sessions that they do.”
Williamson is used to speaking out – she was part of the England team that won the Euros last year and then demanded equal access to sport for boys and girls in schools. While she embraces being outspoken and an activist, she gets frustrated with the conversations around it. “People will say: ‘Bore off with your activism,’ or: ‘Just play the game.’ I’m like: ‘This is life. It’s life and it’s the conversations of life and real circumstances. There’s no story, there’s no drama, it is black and white: this is the way we’re treated, and this is the way that we should be treated, and the majority of the population agree with us.’
“We still have a situations, like we do in Za’atari, with a refugee camp filled with people fleeing war. So when people talk to me about it I just think: ‘Why does everybody not want to live in a better world? Why would you not contribute to it if you could?’ That’s why I’m uncomfortable with the way the word activism is used, because I think it’s just how normal people should behave.”
Seeing the struggles of the girls in the Za’atari camp puts challenges back home in perspective too. “When people say ‘no’ to me here, now I think: ‘No? Really?’ Because if we can do it there, we can do it here,” Williamson says. “There is no reason to stop us here, it’s just an opinion or somebody that doesn’t agree, instead of actual barriers, like not having a home. I try not to compare it because that would drive me insane, or I’d feel even more useless.
“But in terms of trying to change for the better, I’m like: ‘You’re going to need to give me a better reason than “no” now because when I asked for something that I think is worthy, it’s achievable. I know it is.’”