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Football is Everything

By Bridget Grant / February, 26, 2016

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“Football —to me— is everything. Football is support. Football is health. It means relationships and it means peace.”

This morning I listened to these words pour out of Darfur United coach Souliman with such conviction that I had to take pause. This wasn’t the first time coach Souliman’s words and presence have stopped me in my tracks and caused me to consider the greater implications of my own actions and interactions. He’s a delightful man who is self-assured in the understated way that makes you feel instantly comfortable. A man whose kindness is felt before it is shown.

During the soccer academy coach tryouts this past November Souliman led by example. He showed up early and was the last to leave. He wasn’t the most skilled player to turn out, but he worked harder and moved his feet faster than everybody else for four days straight. The desire and grit he approached this opportunity with was not easily missed. Souliman knew what a coaching position at Darfur United (DU) would mean to him and his family, but more importantly, he recognized the power of organized sport to help heal and empower the youth in his community. Today we got to witness this effort in full force.

Souliman, though, is only one-fourth of the phenomenal coaching staff here at Darfur United Soccer Academy (DUSA) Goz Amer. This morning I was reunited with him, Issag, Sadiya and Thouhilia. I’ve been looking forward to seeing my friends and hearing about their first months as coaches more than anything else on this trip. After catching up we hunkered down in their office, a small room at the Little Ripples school draped in DU banners and team rosters, and we got to work. I had planned to discuss reporting requirements, community outreach, health and hygiene and the like, but I soon realized my job here is nearly finished.

The DU coaches in Goz Amer took the pillars of this program and turned it into something truly their own. After only two short months the team and I were blown away by what we saw today.

These four support each other fiercely, and that support is felt by their players. Isaag explained to me that he’s a role model now and knows he’s having a positive influence in the lives of young children, “Kids walking to the valley with their mothers point and say, ‘that’s my coach, that’s coach Issag!’” Today while we watched DUSA practice, kids helped pail water for the entire club, set up goals alongside their coaches, and volunteered to lead exercises. The support could be felt all around us.

Health and hygiene? These four have it covered. Each Friday they bring the kids back to Little Ripples for lessons on the importance of personal hygiene. Once, they taught kids how to wash clothing, and they regularly explain the importance of proper hand washing and latrine use. The coaches encourage the kids to come to practice as clean as possible to lower the chance of spreading sickness. They’re not only addressing these important issues, they’ve actually created space to teach these vital lessons consistently. Wow!

Building relationships with the community is important as DUSA coaches. Our coaches in Goz Amer make sure to visit the schools regularly and communicate with teachers. They’re even present in players’ home-lives. When it comes to managing major conflicts and fighting, the group has created their own response. Following any major incident, the coaches head home with the kids after practice and sit with them and their parents to explain, “This behavior is not okay. Girls, boys, men, or women we are one community. This is not allowed at DUSA.” The pride Sadiya, Thouhilia, Souliman, and Issag take in this program and these children is more than we could have ever asked for.

And as for peace? Today we saw peace as we watched DUSA’s ‘Fun Friday’ practice rather awe struck. As opposed to regular practice sessions, where children come to play two times a week on their allotted days, the entire club gathers for a fun afternoon of scrimmages. We witnessed nearly 500 attentive, happy children follow the lead of their coaches in a mindfulness exercise to prepare their minds and bodies for practice. Holding hands and walking backwards, these 500 kiddos formed the biggest circle I’ve ever seen. Bare feet and bright clothing stuck out in stark contrast against the sand that is their Darfur United Soccer Academy field. Together, they sat in silence, cross-legged with little hands on their stomachs as they focused on their breathing. It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

Today I was able to feel what Souliman expressed. Football is in fact support, it is health, and it is relationships and peace. For these coaches and kids in refugee camp Goz Amer, football is everything.

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