Growing up with a competitive British father, I was forced encouraged to participate in the ritual of soccer (or “football,” as most of the world calls it) from a young age. I started running away from the ball in fear playing at the age of three and continued until my early retirement at the age of 14, when I began to compete in track and cross country instead. Although my career on the soccer field was short-lived and fairly uninspiring due to my lack of talent, I am grateful for what it gave me: a sense of belonging to a team, the ability to forget all of my grade school problems for a few hours every week and the opportunity to focus on one tangible thing – getting to the ball.
As I prepared to volunteer at Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence in Ndejje, Uganda, I knew I would be touched by all of the programs the organization offers to refugees: English classes to communicate, mental health counseling to rehabilitate, vocational training to assimilate. What I didn’t expect was how moved I would be by the HOCW soccer team, made up of 25 male refugees ranging in age from their teens to late twenties. After visiting practice in a jetlagged day-two-in-Uganda haze, I knew that this team was something special. Refugees who had seemed soft-spoken on the HOCW compound were suddenly transformed into confident young men, shouting and passing the ball like pros. Teenagers who rarely cracked a smile were laughing and wrestling on the side lines. Memories of tragedy were seemingly left off the field, locked outside the gate for a couple of hours.
Although the connection between sports and recovery for refugees might not be obvious, it makes absolute sense. First of all, exercise has been proven to relieve stress. In addition, refugees are often forced to flee their home countries without friends and even family, so the sense of belonging that a team provides is critical. Many members of the team are unemployed or do not go to school so just having something productive to do every week provides a sense of worth. Picking up a new language or learning about a new culture from teammates is in itself a valuable exchange. And perhaps most importantly, it provides a bit of fun for people whose lives were once, and may continue to be, dominated by fear and uncertainty.
“I might not be the best player, but being on the HOCW football team is important to me because it gives me a place to go every week. When I am on the field, I have no time to think about my problems,” says Baraka, a twenty-one year old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has lived in Uganda for nearly three years. Baraka was forced to leave Congo before finishing high school and has relied upon football to integrate into the local community. As team captain, Baraka has also been able to flex his leadership skills, helping him gain confidence as he navigates life in a foreign country.
For Baraka and other members of the refugee community here, football is much more than just a game. It’s not about points or passes, wins or losses. It’s about hope.