I’ve been the rather “official” travel agent for my brother Gabriel and the i-ACT team since his first trip to the camps. Africa not being my area of expertise, I did not even know the airport code for the now oh so familiar city if N’Djamena, Chad (NDJ). Our whole family has supported Gabriel after he educated us about Darfur and the dire living conditions of the refugees living in the camps along the Eastern border of Chad. We’ve followed every single journey and offered our support in whichever way we each could, hoping to also raise awareness.
When I started putting together the itinerary to get the Darfur United (DU) team to Ostersund, I felt that I did not only want to be their travel agent, I wanted to be there with them, cheering them on and having an opportunity to connect and meet this wonderful group of young men that were going to be proudly representing their people while at the same time hopefully just offering moral support to the DU team, Gabriel and the i-ACT team. When I called my sister Rachel Veerman to ask her with one week notice if she would consider going with me to Ostersund, she jumped on the opportunity and did not hesitate one minute to respond with a very excited YES!
Rachel was co-founder of stopgenocidenow.org with Gabriel when it all started as a grassroots movement and she has been very hands on in many ways and a very involved “behind the scenes” member of the i-ACT team. My sister Connie who would have loved to join us as well and went to the camps with Gabe on one of his trips, was not able to go due to a work conflict. Therefore, Rachel and I decided we would be the cheerleaders for the DU team and in a way represent all the supporters who would be there in spirit and also be following the journey. They have so many fans all over the world that contributed in the fundraising efforts, donating, spreading the word and working hard to help get the team to Sweden.
Rachel and I made it to Ostersund after a very long trip just a few hours before game 1. It was, to say the least, a very humbling experience to be a part of this all. To be witness of the drive and passion that these young men have not merely for the sport of soccer, but knowing well that through their passion for the sport they were bringing attention to the needs of their people back at the refugee camps in Chad and about the atrocities that continue back home in Darfur. Meeting the team that morning just before their game, we saw excitement in their faces and at the same time nervousness. A feeling we shared as we saw them come out on the field and proudly sing their own National anthem. It was amazing to see how the team was embraced by so many of the other teams participating in the tournament, like Isle of Man, who would attend the games chanting “DARFUR”… “UNITED” and would celebrate their own wins by first singing a song in honor of DU, wearing green t-shirts (different to their red and yellow team uniforms) with the DU logo during their training sessions. We were surprised to see other Darfuri families now living in Sweden also joining us in the stands excitedly cheering on their team with some driving up to 12 hours to be there. Darfur United’s fan base grew as others learned about them, the daily struggles they endure, and the challenges that were faced to get to Sweden.
They did lose the three games we were fortunate to watch, however, they were applauded as winners after each one. As Rachel and I stood in their locker room after the first loss, the boys seemed sad, some sore and hurting from being banged up a bit by a much physically stronger opponent. Their coach Mark Hodson would give them a great pep talk and would remind them about the larger picture and how they were truly the big winners by being there and letting their story be told. They would file out of the locker room with smiles and one after the other giving us high fives. And no matter the outcome of the games, DU was for sure the story the press and media were seeking to cover at the ConIFA World Cup. The bigger “goal” was accomplished with the great coverage by BBC, Sweden TV, CNN to name a few and many other media members that were present and interviewing Gabriel, coach Mark and a few of the DU players.
Back home I feel my life is pretty much consumed by work and I rarely take vacation time. I can’t remember when was the last time I was away from the office for a week. This is truly an experience I would not exchange for any other. Having had the opportunity to spend some time with the young men of the Darfur United team has enriched our lives and we will continue to cheer them on from afar and hope that as their story is told to millions around the world, one day they will be able to return home and Darfur will raise many strong athletes!