Refugees Truly United
Nduta Refugee Camp, Tanzania—Recently, I had the privilege of delivering a refresher training for Refugees United Soccer Academy (Academy) coaches in the Nduta refugee camp in Tanzania. Ten Burundian refugee men and women gathered to review the basics of the Academy program and learn additional skills and drills to do with their players. One of the major topics discussed was the coaches’ desire to connect more with their fellow coaches in the Mtendeli refugee camp, as well as other Academy coaches around the world. Little did they know I had a surprise in store for them. After completing the training in Nduta, I had arranged for the Academy coaches in the Mtendeli camp to travel to the Nduta camp to spend a day together with their fellow coaches. When both groups found out, they were ecstatic!
Early on Friday morning the Mtendli coaches traveled over an hour to arrive at the Nduta camp. When they entered into the child-friendly space, the Nduta coaches greeted them with hugs and smiles as if they had known each other for years, despite this being the first time they had ever met. We all gathered in a classroom and started the day with a fun name-game followed by mindfulness, allowing coaches from both camps to lead different exercises. After a short discussion on how the two groups were delivering the Academy program in their respective camps, we were joined by soccer coaches from the nearby schools in the camp. This was a great opportunity to share the Academy program with them, discuss common challenges and solutions, and identify ways to work together. Although the overall discussion was positive, it eventually went down the path of venting frustrations about particular challenges the coaches were facing: not enough program materials, not enough playing space, lack of support from parents, etc. This was a perfect segue to the next activity.
In addition to bringing the coaches together, I had also arranged for them to watch the Not Just Football documentary, which tells the story of the Darfur United men’s football team. For the next two hours, the coaches were riveted. When the film showed old news clips of violence in Darfur, the coaches were saddened, shaking their heads with disapproval. When the film showed footage of the Darfur United try-outs in Chad, the coaches were in awe of the situation and context: some players didn’t have any shoes and had to play on burning sand; other players wore thread-bare clothes with holes; and many players sustained injuries, yet persevered as if their lives depended on it. When the film finally showed the team scoring their first goal, the coaches cheered and clapped as if they were they were in the stadium seeing it in real time.
After the film finished, the coaches had lots of questions. “Where is the team now?”, “Are they still playing?”, “How can we get in touch with them?” “What is the situation in their camps now?” etc.
I asked the group what they thought the central message of the film was. One coach said, “The team overcame many challenges and difficulties to reach where they did.” Another coach commented, “It was about hope and not giving up.” Another coach added, “It shows that football (soccer) is not just a game, it can give your life meaning.”
I then asked the group how the film relates to them and their work as Academy coaches. Their responses included:
- “We see the challenges that those Darfur players faced and it reminds us that we too can overcome our own challenges.”
- “Our challenges will continue, but we must not give up like iACT and the Darfur United team did not give up.”
- “The Darfur United team brings hope to their communities and we can also bring hope to our own communities by supporting the children in our Academies.”
- “Those Darfur players are our brothers; we are one team together.”
After finishing the discussion, and inspired by watching the Darfur United players, the coaches mixed themselves up into two teams and organized a lively scrimmage. Though a friendly competitiveness was in the air, they were able to show off their skills, have fun, and let loose a little.
The day wrapped up with developing action points for continued communication, collaboration, and support between the different groups, as well as the exchanging of phone numbers and plans to connect on WhatsApp and Facebook.
While the group expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to connect to each other in Tanzania, they emphatically expressed their desire to also be connected with Academy coaches around the world. Daniel, the head RUSA coach in Nduta, said the final comment of the day, “We want to learn from other coaches and share our experiences with them. We want the world to know that we are refugees united across camps and countries.”
With that, we ended the day with a huddle, putting all hands in the middle, and shouting “Refugees United!” as we raised our arms to the sky.
These programs are entirely community-led. They made every decision from which day to run the program to what hours and to who will be on the teaching team each day. The teams are diverse and yet they have committed to working together.
Trust in the process. Trust in the modeling before the explanation. Trust in the people. Trust in the children, and they will trust you.
If there is anything that can foster community between people and across cultures, it is sharing a meal and a cup of tea. While we do that, we will also be sure to sprinkle in some early childhood development, mindfulness, and games!