Hanging out with the Darfur United players, it was easy to forget where they came from and what they have gone through. They are the kindest and most joyful group you’ll ever meet. There were moments, though, when their past came rushing back into the present.
One of the most fun things we did during our Viva World Cup trip to Iraq was attend the opening ceremony for the tournament. The stadium was alive, filled with colors, sounds, and palpable emotions. The Kurdish team fans were in full celebration, waving flags, blowing their horns, and hanging from dangerous places, showing their pride for their team and their land. The Darfur United players were wide-eyed and had big smiles—most of the time.
Right before the game started and amid the big celebration, bright lights started bursting in the sky above and just behind us, followed almost immediately by loud “boom!, boom!, boom!” The crowd grew even wilder, as everyone in the stadium turned to admire the fireworks. But not everyone turned around.
When I looked around me to see how our players were taking all of this in, I saw some of them looking forward—and they were not smiling like the rest of us. They looked tense, and something told me that they wanted out of there. James asked Souleyman what he thought about the fireworks, and his response was: “I was waiting. If I saw anyone else starting to run, I was going to start running also.”
Some years ago, most of the Darfur United players heard sounds like the ones being made by the fireworks. Back then it was not a celebration. It was bombs falling on their villages, bombs that killed friends and family and that marked the end to their way of life.
Their journey has been long and with a big pause. Life in the refugee camps has been life interrupted. They still dream though, and they want to be a part of the world.
The game started, and the guys enjoyed watching and just being fans of the beautiful game. They rooted for the home team, being grateful for the hospitality of the Kurdish hosts, and they celebrated when they scored a goal. They were guys having fun. I’m sure they just want all explosions to stay in their past.