The Darfur region is better known for poverty and the murderous Janjeweed militia, who terrorised and drove out many of the indigenous population in western Sudan in a conflict that began over grazing rights. Since 2002, an estimated 250,000 Sudanese refugees have fled the conflict and sought refuge at the Breidjing Camp in Eastern Chad. This number grows daily.
While Darfur sadly symbolises famine and death, the region has recently been in the spotlight for an altogether different reason: hope. In June 2012, a team of Darfur refugees made their ‘international’ debut in the bi-annual VIVA World Cup, which was staged in the beautiful region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
With no games played prior to the tournament, how Darfur would fare in its first fixture against the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was hard to gauge, particularly as the TRNC has an established and competitive league whereas the side that American manager Mark Hodson had whittled down from a shortlist of over 60, taken from refugee camps, had yet to play a game.
The end result, a 15-0 loss, was irrelevant. What the men that took to the field that day achieved was far greater than any scoring victory could have given; they placed Darfur on the map and their honest play, integrity and fight was an inspiration to all who witnessed the event. The fact that a year later the team is still playing and the world continues to talk about their debut, tells a more important story.
An 18-0 loss to French Provence gained the team some local media coverage in France, again far more important than the result. The continued strength and messages of support for the Darfuri players was overshadowed by the stories of death and persecution that the players told. The stories shocked those present; not that it was a surprise to anyone. Frequent tales of atrocities and death emanate from the camp as almost all the refugees have suffered some kind of violence prior to find refuge in the Breidjing.
The camp itself it a dangerous place – gangs are commonplace and law is almost impossible to regulate. Though charities do a superb job in helping those in the camp, the reality is these people need their own home. They deserve their own land. For now, however, they need hope.
That Darfur United – as the team is known – was even at the World Cup is an amazing story in itself. The idea for team came from the west coast of America and i-ACT, a non-profit organisation based in the Los Angeles area. “We have been traveling to the refugee camps in Eastern Chad since 2005, each time connecting with the refugees through various projects, including football,” explains organiser Katie-Jay Scott. “Football is one of the few outlets that the Darfuri children and young adults have. Since 2010 we’ve been bringing sports equipment donated by football and volleyball clubs in America to the schools in the refugee camps. In 2011 we had the opportunity to ask Christian Michelis from the VIVA World Cup if they would accept a team from Darfur; and he said yes. That is where Darfur United and its journey began.
“Now we have several football clubs, organisations, schools, and individuals involved. Aid Still Required (ASR), also based in the Los Angeles area, came on board as a partner to help us make the trip to VWC, and the long term programs, a reality.”
Although the Kurdish organisers covered accommodation for 25 members of each of the eight visiting teams to Kurdistan, entrants had to cover their airfare. This has deterred some potential teams, notably Greenland, who don’t have the backing of charities and aid to support their trip. All things considered, however, I think the Greenland team would rather reside where they are than in the starving, dangerous conditions of the Breidjing.
As Darfur United prepared to leave Chad, Katie-Jay Scott admitted: “We continue our outreach on this front. It’s been an amazing feat to raise what has been needed and we still have a little way to go.”
She continued: “i-ACT and ASR have been fundraising since November 2011 to make this project a reality. It’s required three trips to the refugee camps: introduction of the idea and establishing a project plan, tryouts, and now finally to pick up the team and take them to Iraqi Kurdistan. We’ve collected quite a few donations, including our uniforms and boots which were all donated by Tracy McGrady, an NBA player. Xara Soccer has also been incredible in providing balls, cones, goalie gear, and training uniforms for the team.
“The project has been fully funded by generous individuals, schools/school clubs, local Los Angeles businesses and amateur football teams. We’ve sold Darfur United gear and hosted a large fundraiser in Manhattan Beach which helped raise the profile and gain coverage.”
Sport has always bridged gaps in society – perhaps it has the potential to do the same in Darfur. The One Strong Kick event in the US raised £10,000 for the team’s academy in Camp Mile. According to the website, “The Darfur United Soccer Academy will offer a safe place for children and youth to gather and participate in a healthy and enriching activity that teaches lessons that apply on and off the field.
Play is recognized as one of the best forms of therapy. Offering the opportunity and means to participate in a positive, organized, and sustained activity can have a huge impact on individuals and the entire community.The first DU Soccer Academy will be launched in Camp Mile in 2013. Camp Mile is home to Darfur United players Sadam, Mohamed Mahmoud, and Mubarag.”
What happened next for Darfur United after the VWC was the main issue. In spite of the on field difficulties that faced the team during the tournament, the team quickly regrouped and plans were formulated to continue growth. The aforementioned academy for kids in the region will help shape the sporting future of the camp and give the players inspiration and hope.
The coaching continues to improve, the equipment is improving and the playing surface is being tailored to suit the game. In reality, this matters very little – the message will always come first. The Darfuris may be displaced. They may be short of food, water and security. But they are still here, and slowly they will regain their place on the map. Be it through football or politics.
Katie-Jay Scott added: “Darfur United will grow after VWC. We plan to create an academy like program that trains these initial players to return home and teach soccer to the kids and young adults in their own camp. There are twelve camps in Eastern Chad and all camps are represented in those attending the VWC plus a few others who were on the roster but unable to travel.
“These young men will continue to be trained by coaches who travel to the refugee camps and in turn share their football knowledge with their peers. We also hope to begin a program for young girls, which will be the first of its kind in the camps. All of this will likely start with a pilot program in Spring 2013.
“We also want the team Darfur United, also known as Darfur FA, to continue to be able to play together and against other teams. Most likely, the next match would be in Chad, against Chad itself, or perhaps against an organised UN Refugee Agency team; not sure of the details or timing of this but we will work to keep the team playing together.
“Darfur United is really more than just a team. It will not only be turned into a documentary about the team and their individual stories from Darfur to the refugee camps, but it will serve to continue to unite the Darfuri’s in a time when they are physically and spiritually disconnected because of violence.”
The sustainability of the project is the key – training those to train others. As with education, it only takes one trained mind to impart their knowledge on a thousand others. In football, coaching is the same. It only takes one coach to teach a thousand, who will teach ten thousand. The future is bright for football in Darfur and through the game perhaps the camp will feel hope, faith, joy and inspiration. They certainly deserve it.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem