At the core of iACT’s work is the idea that we exist not simply to build programs. We build relationships. When we step into new situations or new regions, it is not just to bring soccer or early childhood education to conflict-affected communities, but to reach out our hand in humility and center the humanity and dignity of each person we meet.
Our founder Gabriel Stauring, who grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, had long felt the pull to explore the possibility of bringing our Refugees United Soccer Academy to refugee and asylum-seeking communities along the US-Mexico border. His instigation of this project, as well as funding from the National Women’s Soccer League team Angel City FC, led iACT to take our first trip to the border region in January 2023. Our goal was simple, to listen and to learn.
Listening in at the Border
In other places where iACT works, listening trips have looked a little different. We have brought together members of the community to sit in circle with us, to share their stories, their concerns, their dreams, and how we might come together to create opportunities for their children.
This trip, the population we hoped to work alongside – particularly in Reynosa and Matamoros – were in active crisis. They were still on the move, many not living in a central location, and not tied to the coordination of a larger body such as the United Nations.
This trip was all walk-and-talk. We walked the shelters and encampments, had conversations where we could, but mostly offered our presence and support as members of the community searched for answers to the new immigration process. Being among the migrant and asylum seeking community, we could sense the heaviness of their stress level. We focused on what we could give them with our ears, our hearts, and our time.
While it seemed like we had fewer deep conversations on this trip than others, we still learned so much from the people who offered their stories to us.
What Did We Learn?
Their journeys to the border were grueling, traumatic, and often devastating
They made their way by air, sea, foot, train, bus, any way they could
Mothers often struggled to breastfeed as they themselves were malnourished
They were very concerned about the dust and how it affected their children
The children were getting sick through the journey to the border
There’s little to no programming for their children, no activities during the day
What programming exists is in Spanish, not much for Haitian Creole speakers
They worry for the safety of their children, only feeling safe in some of the shelters
They want programs to help their children heal from the trauma
Learning From Partner Organizations
In Mexico, we are also learning from partners on the ground who have been in country doing the work for some time now, organizations such as the Sidewalk School, Save the Children, Fútbol Más, Border Compassion, and individual members of the local community involved in supporting asylum seekers.
Through their insight and guidance, we were able to discern how and where to create safe spaces for children. There are many ways in which working in Mexico will be very different from the other places iACT has programs. Having partners we can trust, who have been in the region long term and can help us understand the intricacies of working along the border is invaluable.
Continuing to Listen
We hold close the words of our former Executive Director Katie-Jay Scott, that “the act of listening and holding space with people can often be the most impactful work we do. When people are truly heard, they can begin to see again the power they hold within themselves.”
So, before bringing any programming to a new community, we ask “what do you need? What are your worries? What are your hopes? What do you wish for your children?” We start first with listening and building trust, and then co-create our programming with the community from that foundation.
The reality is, one listening trip is never enough. Relationships are not built in a day. They require nurturing and hard work. So, now the work begins. The introductions have been made, the connections sparked, and now it’s time to build and grow.