From Strangers to Brothers, On and Off the Field
It was not a great start to our soccer story. It was going to be beautiful, I thought, the bringing together of young men from all twelve refugee camps, representing over a dozen tribes to become a team, to joyfully play together—united! As we stood in front of them at our first meeting, the serious, uncomfortable looking men had something to tell us first about the living arrangements: they would not mix and stay in tents with anyone not from their same camp. Period. Coach Mark and I had a quick, impromptu meeting. Very few words. We both agreed, if they wanted to be a part of a team, they had to act like teammates and really be together, or they would not be a part of Darfur United. Period.
This was Mark’s introduction to the team, and I believe it’s part of what earned him the respect of the team—and yes, they did become a real team. Darfur United. Coach Mark told them through a translator: they would have to sleep in tents as assigned and not as they wished. They would be together, live together, and play together, or they would not be a part of the team. An unassuming man, older-looking than
the rest of them, stood up and said that they would all follow Coach’s instructions, and that they were proud to be a part of the try-outs. This was Souleyman, from the start showing his leadership skills. He went on to become Darfur United’s Team Captain at the Viva World Cup in Iraq—because of those skills.
What Mark asked them to do, to live together, was not as easy as we might think. You have to remember that these young men arrived to their now refugee camp homes as young boys between 10 and 15 years old. They had just experienced unimaginable violence and loss, seeing their villages destroyed and family and friends killed. They came from different regions of Darfur and from different tribes, and had now lived in isolation from each other and the world for almost ten years. The natural thing would be for them to be weary and distrustful towards anyone not belonging to their group.
So it didn’t start too well, but they then started playing. On the field, they did not see what was different in each other, except for maybe the soccer moves and skills they each brought. Mark taught them drills, and they then had to learn how to flow together on the pitch, make passes on the ground or in the air, to feet or to open space—and to trust each other.
In between their two-a-day practices, they ate, gathered water, washed, cut their hair, and just talked—together. After the try-outs, we left 20 players to train on their own at camp Djabal. When we returned to take them to Iraqi Kurdistan, we found a lot more than a team. We found a family. The young men that did not want to sleep in the same tent were now like brothers. They were teaching their tribal languages to each other, and they all knew about their families and where they came from. They had also given each other nicknames, based on what famous player they resembled, wished they played like, or other reasons I did not exactly get, but they laughed about.
Throughout the journey to the Viva World Cup, you could see that they really cared about each other. Sure, they also fought and argued, just like brothers do! But, they were connected for life. The players are now again scattered among the twelve camps. When I run into one of them, though, they tell me that they are in contact with the others and can’t wait to see them again.
As we look ahead at the incredibly difficult task of taking Darfur United to the 2014 ConIFA World Championship in Sweden, we know that not all from last team will make the cut, but they will always be Darfur United. I smile at the thought of seeing another group of players coming together and creating memories and relationships that will change their lives and the lives of their communities. These young men are leaders for Darfur, and through soccer they’ll learn that playing or working together is so much more rewarding than staying apart. For this, Darfur United is invaluable.
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