We walk off of the plane and a nice, sharp cold hits us. This is not southern California, and it’s definitely not eastern Chad. Östersund, Sweden might be an odd place for an all-refugee team from Darfur to meet up with its coaching and management team from the warm beaches just outside Los Angeles, but it is also the perfect place.
We make it through immigration, and the best smile ever is waiting for us. Darfur United (DU) midfielder and (maybe) future mayor of Östersund, Moubarak is there for us with Alan and Judith Barker. Al and Jud have taken in Moubarak as a son, and they now welcome the entire team to this beautiful town for a weeklong training camp. DU head coach, Mark Hodson, along with coaches Rudy Sanchez and Amy Gilmore and athletic trainer Alex Nuttall-Smith are here to prepare the team to compete to qualify for the 2018 CONIFA World Cup. Felicia and I (and the iACT team back home) are here to support!
This is a serious endeavor. We want the team to become stronger and create the foundation for future generations of players that will represent Darfur on and off the field. Gathering with “the boys” is also pure joy. I have not seen them since the 2014 Cup that took place here in Östersund—and which changed all of their lives. Most of the players do not see each other regularly, so it’s been fun seeing them catch up and reconnect.
All of the boys I’ve talked to express deep gratitude for the opportunity playing for DU has given them. They love the game, and they appreciate that it led to them now having legal residency in Sweden. They are all physically healthy, and most are in school and keeping busy with sports and other activities. Nevertheless, they never forget where they came from, and they worry about their families who continue to experience extreme hardship in refugee camps and inside of Darfur. They want to continue to be a voice for Darfur—a voice that is loud, demanding peace for their people.
As the team trains in the snow, I see them and I get the chills. I am freezing of course, but the chills I experience come from all the emotions that wash over me. I want this team to do well. I want Moubarak and each and every one of the players to have a full and happy life. I want them not to have to worry about their families.
In just a few days, I head out on my 25th trip to the Darfuri refugee camps in Chad. I will see many of the players’ families, and I know that the mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters will experience deep joy at seeing their boy playing on the frozen field of Östersund.
Join The Pride, the official supporters’ club for Darfur United, to amplify the voices of the team and be a part of their journey.