Today, the first day of Refugees United Soccer Academy training in Gado refugee site, was perhaps the most rewarding day of our trip so far. It was 15 minutes into the warm-up when I thought, aw yes, this is why we travel so far and put up with all of the unknowns— the change of plans, delays, long uncomfortable car rides, dodgy hotels, and next to no wifi or communication with home.
Fifteen minutes into the warm-up is when I asked the 35 candidates to lay on their stomachs and wait for me to clap twice before standing up and running to the other line of cones. This instruction caused some uncomfortable giggling. Each person looked to their left and right, laughing and smiling, ensuring their peers were doing the same. I clapped twice and they hurried to their feet and ran as fast as they could, laughing and falling over one another, to get to the line first.
I highlight this moment because, however cliche, I think it is significant. Yet so often, moments like this are lost in the humanitarian formalities, jargon and processes that we must tend to and report on. It’s so incredibly easy, no matter how compassionate or empathetic you are, to turn a camp, a site, a group or a people into a statistic. It’s easy to count the number of households, to fill your quota of interviews, to meet with the implementing NGO partners and to enter a community with pre-established assumptions and expectations. Had we only sat in a meeting with this group of individuals, spanning from 18 to 30 years of age, we would only have briefly seen them serious and guarded, heard their struggles and needs and likely labeled them as that one group of youth in Gado site that we spoke with. Had it not been for our dedication to launch a Refugees United Soccer Academy and invest in training these men and women in this community, we would not have known the 35 individual candidates by name. We would not have seen their smiles, individual talents and athleticism or encouragement of others. We would not have seen their work ethic and enthusiasm for learning and playing.
And so I write of the smiles and the laughter and the cliche moments, because it really is when you are with people in a state of openness, play, joy, sharing and learning that you begin to see your common humanity. It’s when you truly grapple to understand how, not so far away, there are people their age, just like them, who either continue to face violence or who have been convinced to pick-up AK47s and machetes. It’s when you forget about all the hard work, planning and traveling, and all you can think about is wanting to do more, stay longer, reach more people and travel back more often.