By Mary O’KEEFE
Go to any sporting event and you will see athletes competing, fans cheering and team spirit. The audience typically doesn’t know the personal life of the players, just that they were talented enough to make the team. For players, it is a time to leave the world behind and focus on the game. This is universal whether you are from Crescenta Valley or a world away.
That “love of the game” is evident in the newly formed soccer team comprised of athletes living in refugee camps on the border of Chad-Sudan. These soccer players will compete in the Viva World Cup Soccer Tournament in June in Iraqi Kurdistan. Players will be competing for the Nelson Mandela Trophy.
On Saturday, the nonprofit organization iAct will be holding a fundraiser and exhibition to help send 15 refugee soccer players and five alternates from those Darfur refugee camps to the tournament.
The fundraiser, called “One Strong Kick,” will feature soccer players, coaches and activists. There will be information on the tournament and the players. Prizes will be raffled off and a trailer for the Darfur documentary will be shown.
“From the beginning we saw that soccer brought the refugees joy. It was therapeutic,” said Gabriel Stauring, founder and director of iAct.
The organization started to work on the daunting task of getting a team together, coaching them and preparing to plow through the massive amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that would allow the team to travel from the camp to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Sixty-one players from 12 surrounding camps near the Chad-Sudan border tried out for the team. With the help of Mark Hodson, Manhattan Beach Sand and Surf Soccer Club director of Coaching, 15 players were chosen for the team with five alternates.
One of the most difficult problems that Stauring and his organization will face is getting the proper paperwork to allow this team to travel internationally. They have no country, therefore no passports.
iAct is working with officials and are hoping to get passports for the players from Chad so they can travel to compete.
The members of the iAct organization, which is based out of the South Bay, travel to the camps where those who have escaped the violence of Darfur now call home.
“It was a personal journey for me,” Stauring said of his interest in the Darfur civil war. “I am an in-home counselor for abused children. I heard about the [tragedy] of Darfur in 2004.”
The UN estimates that 300,000 have been killed and two million expelled from the Darfur region after a civil war between the government backed militia and rebel forces.
Stauring started educating himself about the conflict while looking for an opportunity to help.
“One big thing was to try to find a way to be personally connected with the people,” he said.
He focused on the millions of refugees that had ended up in the camps.
“I would head out into the camps and bring back [other volunteers] with me,” he said.
The volunteers continue to visit the camps and help through supporting education and sports programs.
Stauring saw the loss of hope as the days and months turned into years and still they remained in the camps.
“Many of them came to the camps thinking the war would be over soon and they would be able to go home,” he said. “It is really rough on the spirit when parents watch their children grow up in the camps.”
He added that children losing hope is even worse because they are finding false hope in other areas.
“You will see rebels groups come into the camp. They are dressed [well] and have some money,” he said.
The groups will offer young boys a way out of the camps by joining the fight.
“They give them a sense of belonging. It is difficult to keep the boys in camp.”
Girls are another matter. As soon as they turn 13, parents begin finding them someone to marry. Part of this stems from a cultural tradition but it also stems from the lack of education for young girls at the camps.
“But when we talk to them they want to engineers and nurses, like the previous generations,” he said.
Stauring and members of his organization wanted to find a way to bring hope back to the camps. Soccer became the answer.
“It is something that gave them an immediate sense of identity in the outside world,” he said.
The event will be held on Saturday from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. at a private residence in Manhattan Beach. Those who would like to attend or would like more information or to donate can visit the website at www.iactivism.org.