Not many people can truly appreciate 100 degree weather, tons of sand without being at the beach, living off nuts, bagged tuna, and power bars halfway across the world, but I’m finding out it’s possible. You can study and research an area to great depths and think you know exactly what to expect when you arrive, but nothing rivals being there to experience it and see it with your own eyes. Nothing can prepare you.

One of the most remote places on Earth? THE most remote place on Earth. We traveled almost halfway around the world just to get to Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. From there we got on a plane and flew over miles and miles of desert just to land right in the middle of it.

We arrived in Eastern Chad in the late morning, and spent the majority of our time at Camp Djabal’s restaurant where we met some of Gabriel’s friends. He is thought of so highly that one of the boys, Rahma who works with for the camp’s library, calls him family. The difference between Gabriel and other visitors to the camps is that his promises are never empty. He comes back again and again. So much that this is his twelfth trip. One can only respect that. We all sat in a circle and were listening to the camp leader for Camp Djabal, Abdulaziz, and the camp leader for Goz Amer, Umda. When they spoke about Darfur United, they were gleaming with pride. They were so happy that their people had the chance to do something outside the camps. One of them described that some refugees don’t even know about the other camps. That this is the first time ever that the Darfuri people from all 12 camps will be brought together. That this is the first time these players ever experienced a plane flight. That finally, the people of Darfur are being brought back together as one.

On our way from the restaurant to our first meeting with the players trying out for Darfur United, some of the people of Camp Djabal were playing a pick up soccer game. Considering most of them were playing barefoot, the play was very encouraging. Especially since the top five players were not playing because they were the chosen ones from Camp Djabal to try out in the morning. This was a great moment, not just because I was experiencing my first refugee soccer match, but this is when the children of the camp began to notice their new guests. I spent a lot of time getting to know Rahma, Gabriel’s friend and a very intelligent 16 year old boy with big, big dreams. During our conversation, our group was literally surrounded by children of all ages. Most just wanted some attention, and it was impossible not to give it to them when you looked into their eyes. It’s like their eyes tell a story. They were all so playful, posing for pictures, kicking around makeshift soccer balls, and climbing a tree that you would never think could fit so many children. No matter where you are in the world, children are children, and there’s no stopping the spirit of a child.

Once we finally made our way to the UN office at Camp Djabal, where the tents are set up for the players to stay, we held our first team meeting. Coach Mark gave the guys the run down of what to expect along with tomorrow’s schedule. Rahma was glad to translate for the refugees who do not speak English. A few of the players for some reason thought we were bringing all 60 trying out cleats to wear. When we told them we didn’t have enough for all 60, a few players seemed disgruntled. This is when this trip’s real power began to shine through. One player asked to speak, and when we motioned to him he stood up and spoke straight from the heart. He was saying that this team is for Darfur. That this is not for the sake of individuals. For the first time since they fled their homes, Darfur is once again being United. Once this player spoke, it opened up the stage for a few more players to make their voices heard. They spoke about how they were grateful that Gabriel has done all the work to make this a reality and that cleats should be the last thing on their mind. This moment grabbed me in a way that no documentary, news article, or blog ever could. These Darfuri refugees were voicing their feelings right in front of me, for the world to hear. This is why I needed to come on this trip. There is no breaking the spirit these people have. The sense of pride in this team will not be broken, especially over a pair of measly cleats.

Brian Cleveland
Darfur United Assistant Coach

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