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iACT's First Soccer Coach: Meet Ramadan Abdullah Abakar

Editorial Note: iACT Volunteer and former Darfur United goalie Souleyman Adam recently sat down with former Refugees United Soccer coach Ramadan Abdullah Abakar. This past year, Ramadan and his family were relocated to the United States by UNHCR from a refugee camp in eastern Chad. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


a group of soccer coaches, two men and two women
RUSA coaches L to R: Layla, Ramadan, Adam Abakar, and Habiba.

Souley:

Tell us a little bit about yourself. I would like to know where you are from originally and how you came to Chad from Darfur.


Ramadan: 

My name is Ramadan Abdullah. I was a Sudanese refugee in Chad for 20 years. The reason I am a refugee is because there was a war in Sudan; a genocide. In 2013, I was lucky enough to come across an iACT event in the camp. And I was lucky to be chosen as a *Darfur United Academy coach. I worked as a coach for the past 10 years. 


*Note: At its launch, iACT’s youth soccer program was called Darfur United Soccer Academy. It was later renamed, Refugees United Soccer Academy (RUSA).

Souley:

As someone who lived in a refugee camp for 20 years, what was daily life like?


Ramadan:

Living in a refugee camp is very difficult. It is very hard to describe our living conditions. We worry about our next meal every day. Sometimes we don’t eat at all, we just drink something and move on. Since we came to the camp in 2003, we feel like we are in a prison. I am no longer in the camp, but I always think about people back in the camp. They are suffering. 


We thank God that iACT came to the camps. iACT helped so many people and they changed the living conditions for so many people, especially for children. The Little Ripples program provides meals for children. This helped and is still helping a lot of families. A lot of families are feeling relieved from not having to worry about what they are going to eat. Also, the meals program has reduced the number of children who experience malnutrition. 


iACT is not only helping children, iACT is doing many things in the camps. iACT provides training and employs us and we lead our community. They do not just come and do everything themselves. Instead, they show us the way, and how, and we do the rest. This is the best, it helps people to be self-sufficient and people can help the community. If you ask anyone who works for iACT, without exaggeration, they will say they are a partner with iACT, not just an employee. People will talk about iACT with confidence and full knowledge because iACT creates these types of leaders.


Group photo of graduating soccer coaches with their certificates
The very first Darfur United Soccer Academy coach's training with Rachel Rapinoe and the iACT Team, Sara-Christine Dallain and Gabriel Stauring.

Souley:

So, how did you get to know iACT and become a coach?


Ramadan: 

When I met iACT, they were here to open soccer academies. iACT came to our soccer field and told us they want to open Darfur United Soccer Academy, and they want to train some of us to be coaches and lead. Thank God at that time I was in good shape and good at soccer. I participated with many of my friends in the training. There were about 12 of us. Women were also included. I’m still thankful for Sara (Christine Dallain), Rachel (Rapinoe), and Gabriel (Stauring). 


Rachel was our first trainer at Darfur United Academy. She trained us for a whole week. After the training, they selected people based on their skills and leadership. Thank God once again I was lucky that I got chosen. I was one of the first four people that got selected to coach the Academy. It was at our camp (Djabal). At that time, I was facing some financial hardship. I was actually planning to leave the camp because of my financial situation. I was going to leave not knowing where exactly, but maybe to go dig for gold. But I was saved by iACT. I got involved in iACT. I stayed in the camp. I got married and now I have five children. Because of iACT I have a family now.


A family poses together for a photo outside their home in a refugee camp.
Ramadan and his family in refugee camp Djabal in eastern Chad.

Souley:

So you became  a coach and worked for years. How was your experience as a coach for the past 10 years?


Ramadan: 

It was the best feeling. I used to think I was worthless with low self-esteem. If you told me I’d be who I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you. After iACT hired me as a coach, I became the main contact person between the coaches and iACT. I started believing in myself and my worth. I don’t even have words to describe how I feel. I felt like I was born again and my life just started. I was super happy because now I have responsibilities and I know how to engage with my community. I learned everything from iACT. 


When it comes to community, we are very diverse in Sudan, we have many tribes. In a community setting, in a soccer field and other places, people are separated by tribes. When iACT came, they made us all work together as a community, regardless of our differences in tribes. We were able to make friends with people from different tribes and backgrounds. After iACT opened academies and created a course for us, we started working together and the importance of our unity became more clear. Now the community learned how to lead themselves. These are just a few of the things I’m mentioning about iACT. When I sit with myself, I think about all that iACT does…things that you just can’t imagine. But when I get asked about iACT, there is not enough time to tell everything that they do.


Two men pose for a photo in a refugee camp.
iACT founder Gabriel Stauring and Ramadan in refugee camp Djabal.
Souley: 

I agree. iACT has so much impact on refugees’ lives that there is not enough time to tell all of it. From the Academy players, have you come across any of the kids that inspired you? 


Ramadan:

We have so many stories from the kids at play at the Academy. Sometimes we welcome kids that do not know how to take care of themselves, and some children have no clothes. We never tell them to go home and come with better clothes on. The way we handle this is, iACT brings us uniforms. We distribute the uniforms to the children and we teach them how to stay clean and we always support them and make sure they have clothes. We also show them how to wash their clothes. 


We have all kinds of personalities at the academy. We have some children that are troublemakers as well. We always talk to them nicely and peacefully. We tell them what they are doing wrong and help them to be better. And when they do something good, we recognize it and encourage them to continue. We have a schedule for cleaning days and counseling for the children. For example, Friday is for cleaning, cutting fingernails, and teaching them how to wash their hands. We treat them well. Sometimes we do a comedy show, and we give them space to share anything with the whole group. They make jokes and laugh. We sit in a circle and chat, and we do mindfulness activities. All these things are working well. 


For example, we had one kid that didn’t follow directions and he was always not focused. Sometimes he made me frustrated, but I always hid my frustration and tried my best to improve him. No matter how patient you were, sometimes he made you frustrated. I kept trying and trying. When he got a bit older, at age 13, 14, he became the best player in the camp. He still remembers all that. And I call him sometimes. He just became one of the best players. Whenever I talk to him about his stories when he started, he always laughs and feels proud. The Academy created so many talented players in the camp.


A soccer coach poses for a photo with two young players.
Ramadan with two RUSA players, twin brothers Bashir and Bashar, long-time members of the iACT family.

Souley:

That’s wonderful. Do you have any memories that stuck in your head and you will never forget from throughout your years of being a coach? 


Ramadan: 

For sure, for sure. I have a memory from the beginning of my career at iACT. When we started at iACT, we were eight men and four women. We were in training and we said this is a once in a lifetime chance for us to work for an organization. We were getting training, but we still didn’t know who would be chosen. We knew it was going to be life changing to get hired. After we finished the training, we went to the final day where the coaches were going to be chosen. The selection process was very fair. They showed us a video of our training on a big projector. People were laughing and enjoying watching us fall during the training. After we enjoyed the video clips, we got together for the selection moment. We took a deep breath and prepared for the final moments, to know who will be a coach in the new Academy. Our heartbeats started to increase so fast. I was not able to sit still. I started moving so much. I even started getting a headache. First, they announced the women who were chosen. Habiba was the first woman to be hired as a coach. Second, was Adam Abakar. Third was Layla. Since they were hiring four coaches only, I knew I had a one percent chance of getting hired. I just accepted that I didn’t make it. And just like that, they called my name. When I heard my name, I felt like my feet were not touching the ground.


Souley:

You were in the sky!


Ramadan:

I was in the sky! The other surprise was my wife was there for me. I was the only one there with his wife. It’s like God made my dreams come true right in front of me. I didn’t know I was going to be selected, but I invited my wife to come with me. My baby was sick, but still she came with the baby. I will never forget that moment, ever. When they called my name, she came and hugged me.


Everytime I think of this moment, I see it in front of me. I remember Rachel also wrote about me on iACT’s Facebook page. It was a long story. I had a bad ankle at the time. It was an old injury that started hurting. Abdulaziz was the interpreter who has now been resettled in France. Through him, Rachel asked me what’s wrong with my ankle. And she said if I’m injured, I should stay out of the training and just watch. I said no, it’s just the shoes are a bit tight for me. She knew I was injured. Also, she understood that I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. She even wrote about it on Facebook. I have seen the post, but because my English is not good, I did not respond. These memories are unforgettable. Very beautiful memories. 


Souley:

Absolutely.


A man and a woman race during soccer drills.
Ramadan training with the Darfur United Women's Team.

Souley:

Another question, how do you see the RUSA Academy helping kids and the community as a whole?


Ramadan: 

For children, the RUSA Academy doesn’t mean a place to just play soccer. Even when they come to RUSA for soccer, we ask about their education. We check who went to school and who didn’t and why. Some kids have financial hardship that prevents them from going to school. They can’t afford 500 CFA (82¢ USD)  to pay for school. Sometimes we pay out of our pockets to make sure our kids go to school. It’s in our curriculum to check on RUSA kids and see how they are doing in school. We have six schools and we visit two schools every week to check on RUSA kids. We go to the schools and tell them that we are coaches and we are here to check on our players. The teachers love that we do so much. And in the community, it’s a big thing. We always have updates and we give them some information on how to deal with situations with their children. And we visit the parents of our players who are not doing well to come up with a success plan with their parents. 


A lot of parents don’t allow their girls to play soccer. And some don’t allow boys and girls to play soccer together. We visit these parents. We sit with them and show them our program, hoping they allow their children to go play and learn. That’s why RUSA is helping people here not just with soccer. Children now have friends from all around the camp. Some children speak different languages, but they built a strong friendship. This has made all coaches famous in the camp. We don’t know everyone, but everyone knows us. 


Souley:

As someone who has been marginalized and been through genocide and lived in a refugee camp, how do you see the leadership and management you learned from iACT as important?


Ramadan: 

If we were educated this much, we wouldn’t have been through all that in Sudan. A lot of problems start off small and get bigger. If we were educated, we would understand what was happening. Now the war is in every corner of Sudan. I call on all organizations, including iACT, to support refugees more. Provide them education, leadership, and management opportunities so that they can manage their hardships. Without education, we cannot fix anything in our country. With education, we don’t need to physically fight. And I will always support iACT in anything because I understand what they do and how important it is.


We need to do something for the refugee children so they can forget what happened to them. For example, the soccer program was one of the solutions. When we go to the soccer field, we are not just entertaining children. A lot of people come and watch us. We play soccer, tell jokes, and have a good time. This is the only time many people can escape from thinking about the war and about what happened to them during the war. That’s why I think all the people who come and watch the soccer program are benefitting from the iACT program, not just the players. If a thousand people come and watch our soccer program, they are all part of iACT. When they come and watch, it’s the only time they feel happy and forget all the pain. This alone is psycho-social support for all of us. 

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