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The Joy of Soccer

The first time I played soccer in a refugee camp was back in 2005, during what was going to be my only trip to the Chad-Sudan border. It was in camp Kounoungou, and I remember bringing out the soccer ball and seeing how eyes lit up all around me.


The people I was meeting in these Darfuri camps still had the shock of war on their faces. They had escaped burning villages recently and were adapting to what they thought was going to be a short stay with their neighbors across the border.


We, the refugees and I, were both wrong. It was not my only trip, and it was not a short stay for them. I’m on my 27th trip. They are on their 14th year as refugees. One thing that has remained constant is the power of soccer—or football—to bring people together and allow them to focus on the joyful present that comes with this beautiful game.


When the ball starts rolling, refugees are no longer refugees. They are not victims or survivors. They are players. The space that is created between the two goals—be it actual metal goals or, more often, simply a set of rocks—has an almost magical power to keep the dark clouds of trauma and despair away. The joy that is produced instantly at the first kick does not disappear when the ball stops. This joy can go with the player away from the pitch and offer him or her a fountain from which smiles can flow and be shared.


Tomorrow, we begin the launching of another Refugees United Soccer Academy (RUSA)—this one in camp Farchana. More than one thousand children will soon be pulling soccer balls out of their coaches’ bags and experiencing the same joy I first saw in Kounoungou. Some might say that football is not an essential service and that refugees have more pressing needs like food, education, and health services. But, it should not be an either/or argument.


I say that joy is essential for every child. Playing is how children learn and expand their horizons. It gives them an opportunity to dream, wonder, and thrive—through physical, emotional, and intellectual action.


I can’t wait for the ball to start rolling for RUSA in camp Farchana. I know that my eyes, and heart, will light up.


Peace, Gabriel


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