As the humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to rock Europe, one CFL player is doing his part to help those most vulnerable.
Over the weekend, two-time Grey Cup champion Thiadric Hansen helped lead an initiative to evacuate roughly 50 BIPOC refugees from Ukraine, providing them food, water and safe transportation to shelter in Germany.
As many as 1.5 million people have fled Ukraine since fighting began last week, but even as European neighbours have opened their borders, those on the ground report that Black refugees and other people of colour are being routinely turned away at crossing points or pushed to the back of long lines.
Once through, BIPOC refugees face further challenges, as trains in Poland to more stable shelter have been made free to those with Ukrainian passports, but not to foreign nationals escaping from the same conflict.
Spending his off-season training in Poland while serving as defensive line coach for the Katy Wroclawskie Jaguars — an affiliate of the European League of Football’s Wroclaw Panthers with whom he won a Polish championship during the cancelled 2020 season — Hansen was at the gym, scrolling social media, when he saw reports of discrimination against Black refugees and felt compelled to do something.
“I was on Instagram and I made a post, I was ready to post about it, and I said to myself, ‘Could I do more?'” Hansen said in an interview with 3DownNation. “I had never tried it but I’m in a position right now where I have a little money on the side from the CFL that maybe I can use, I have time because I’m just coaching and working out to organize that stuff and I’m close to the border.”
“I just decided, why not? Let’s give it a try. Talking on Instagram is fine, but if you can help, why not help?”
The CFL Global standout got in contact with Rakiya Suleman, a Black Lives Matter organizer from his hometown of Flensburg, Germany and a friend of his little sister, and together the two rented a bus, brought on a food sponsor and arranged for a place to take the refugees. Hansen believes his part was the easy one, as the initiative would not have been possible without Suleman’s experience and extensive activist network.
“My partner Rakiya, she did stuff that I probably couldn’t do because she had so many contacts,” he said. “She came on Friday and the whole time she was just upstairs here just talking to different people and the plan changed like three or four times.”
On Saturday, their bus arrived at a church in the Polish capital of Warsaw, where stranded refugees had been evacuated to after crossing through the border. After three hours of delays at the temporary encampment, Hansen succeeded in driving the nearly 50 refugees more than seven hours to Hamburg, where a larger organization is providing them with food and a place to stay while helping facilitate their next step.
Where the refugees go after is up to each person, but they now have access to the assistance they need thanks in part to Hansen.
“Some people were really living in the Ukraine. Other people are just students and they just need to get home somehow. Hamburg has a big airport and even WiFi helps them a lot because they have phones, but we also had people that came there with nothing. They had really just left the country,” he explained.
“I hope they get help there. I couldn’t do [that part] myself, it was a lot, but we basically did the little part of bringing them there. The people who are actually there right now, they’re doing all the helping.”
Hansen and Suleymane funded the entire initiative out of pocket, but were able to recoup a good portion of their losses thanks to a call for charitable donations on social media. Former Bombers teammates like Adam Bighill and Johnny Augustine helped to spread the message and Winnipeg fans played a large role in making the project possible.
“We received a lot of money from Canada,” the defensive end said, grateful for the support. “As soon as I posted it, Winnipeg fans messaged me: ‘Where can we send money? How can we help?’ They were all super excited, super open to it. Sometimes people just need some connection to it and then they know how to help.”
As the star of the CFL’s Global program, Hansen has played in 37 games over the past two seasons for the Blue Bombers, helping them win back-to-back Grey Cup championships. He has recorded 13 defensive tackles, 16 more on special teams, four sacks and three forced fumbles over the course of his pro football career.
Currently a free agent, the German has received offers from multiple CFL teams to continue his career, but under current league rules can only be paid $54,000 — $11,000 less than the league minimum — if he wishes to maintain his Global status on his second contract. Hansen was already offered a raise on that number with a three-year extension following his first season in Winnipeg, but that contract offer was nullified by the league office.
He is currently in conversations with the CFLPA to change that rule so that he may finally be able to cash in on his next deal, just as any other player is allowed. However, if a new arrangement for established Global players can’t be reached in the new collective bargaining agreement, he may have played his last down in the CFL.
“If I can’t negotiate, I don’t really know what’s gonna happen for me, if I’m gonna come back to Canada. Obviously I want to, but I’m almost 30 now,” Hansen said. “It’s hard, I really don’t want to, but maybe I need to find work that’ll give me a [long-term] job.”