In all the refugee camps I’ve visited over the last 13 years, soccer—or football, as it’s called around the world—has a unique and special power to bring joy, unity, and even hope to people that have experienced and continue to live with extreme trauma and stress.
I saw it on my first trip to Darfuri refugee camps on the Chad-Sudan border in 2005. The people I was meeting still had the shock of violence on their faces. They had experienced unimaginable horrors. When I pulled a football out of my bag, their faces softened. When the ball began to roll, for that moment on that rocky hill just outside their refugee camp, they experienced that mysterious joy that comes from the beautiful game.
Today, we began training and coach selection for the Refugees United Soccer Academy (RUSA) in refugee camp Ntendeli, in northwest Tanzania. The group of men and women came in apprehensively and guardedly to our first meeting. As usual, the introductions and first exchange of information were a bit awkward.
But then we walked outside and began to play, and the disconnected group of young men and women became one. The drills and games that the coaches will learn and then teach _ children are designed to build soccer, leadership, and interpersonal skills. Before any of that even happens, they build a joyful space that is perfect for healing.
The game of football is powerful in and of itself. We’ll soon see what it does to the world, with the 2018 World Cup starting in a little over a month. For refugees living in camps where they often feel powerless and isolated, a comprehensive program that uses that almost magical round object, a football, can be transformational.