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Despite winless showing, team of Darfur refugees turns heads at alternate World Cup

  • Saleh Abakar Yaya, Darfur United forward, during a match in Östersund, Sweden (Courtesy i-ACT)
  • The Darfur United and i-ACT teams after Darfur United's last game in Östersund, Sweden (Courtesy i-ACT)
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In the weeks leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, another international soccer tournament was underway in Sweden. The ConIFA World Football Cup, a competition between minorities, stateless groups and other non-FIFA members, brought 12 teams from around the world to Östersund from May 31 to June 8.

The matches did not garner the coverage of those in Brazil, but by the tournament's end, Darfur United, a team that neither won any games nor scored any goals, managed to capture worldwide attention.

In some ways, says midfielder Mahamat "Iggy" Oumar Ignegui, this was the whole point.

"The most important thing that happened was meeting the international media and journalists to talk with them about our experiences in Darfur and eastern Chad," Iggy said. "Though we lost the games by a big number, we enjoyed ourselves, our heads are still up and we are still strong with passion and hope."

Iggy may sound resilient, but his perseverance has been hard won. For the past 12 years, he, his family and his teammates have been among the more than 300,000 refugees living in camps on the Sudanese border in eastern Chad.

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The exodus to the camps began with the onset of the genocide in Darfur in 2003. Darfur and Sudan, the North African country within which Darfur is a region, have a long and complex history, but after Darfuri rebel groups took up arms against the Sudanese government in response to years of neglect and mistreatment, the government answered swiftly and forcefully with military might that included extensive and systematic murder, rape and abductions. Hundreds of thousands of people died, and millions were displaced.

The ethnic violence spurred considerable outrage. In the United States, college campus groups, faith-based organizations and human rights coalitions demanded action, and in 2004, Congress unanimously passed a resolution declaring the violence a genocide. Hope was raised for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but after many years of bloodshed, international attention has been fleeting, with the world's focus shifting to Syria, Iraq and other war zones.

"The United Nations forgot us and our problems," Iggy said.

One group that has not forgotten is i-ACT, a California-based grassroots organization that seeks to help, empower and work with victims of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Gabriel Stauring, the organization's co-founder and director, said the nonprofit's goal is to personalize what is happening on the other side of the world.

"i-ACT is all about finding ways to put a face on the numbers and to bring the voice of the regular person that is affected by horrible, mind-numbing violence to the front," he said.

Along with other members of his team, which includes five full-time staff members and 15 regular volunteers, Stauring has made 19 visits to the eastern Chad refugee camps since 2005.

"It was just going to be one trip, but when we got there, we became friends with the refugees, so now it's personal," Stauring said. "Our i-ACT team is made up of regular people that decided that we could not wait for our leaders to do the right thing just because it's the right thing. They won't. We have to push them."

In addition to its advocacy work, i-ACT founded Little Ripples, a preschool program serving children who have witnessed and experienced significant trauma. Other projects include a network to promote dialogue between the genocide's survivors and human rights activists, a human rights mobile library, and a soccer academy for children.

Darfur United has been the group's most high-profile effort. The team consists entirely of refugee players from a variety of camps and tribes that have historically not always been on friendly terms. Nevertheless, the team's members set aside their differences and came together for soccer.

"We play as brothers," Iggy said. "As one body, like one family."

The team first traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to play in the 2012 Viva World Cup. Iggy, who was also on the roster that year, had grown up accustomed to playing makeshift matches in the sand with whatever could be found for a ball.

"It was our first time traveling by plane," he said. "We stayed in a five-star hotel in Kurdistan's capital, Erbil. It was unbelievable that one day we were there representing our people. We played with real teams and in real fields."

The freshness of the experience followed Iggy and his teammates back to the camps.

"Our families, friends and people were so happy," he said. "Their behavior towards us already changed. They respect us and saw us as leaders."

Iggy, who kept a Darfur United blog, was similarly enthusiastic about his time in Sweden.

"We had a lot of unforgettable experiences and brought the world awareness of how Darfuri refugees have suffered in their lives," he said. "We visited beautiful, historic places in Östersund, and we made a lot of friends from around the world." Despite losing to other teams by as many as 20 goals, Iggy considers other players from around the world his "brothers" and "people who will be friends forever."

With the World Football Cup behind them, Iggy and his teammates face a new challenge: deciding what to do next.

"Many players did not return to Chad and are currently deciding whether to seek asylum while their visiting visas are still valid," Stauring wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed. "They see no hope in the refugee camps they call 'open prisons.' For all of them, not returning would mean immeasurable emotional pain, being away from their families and friends in a strange and far away land, but it might just give them more of an opportunity to help."

Help is certainly needed. According to Stauring's op-ed, food rations in the camps have been cut by half, with refugees officially receiving between 900 and 1,100 calories a day as opposed to the 2,100 they received in the past. A May 2014 Little Ripples survey of 117 primary caregivers of 170 refugee preschool students found 100 percent of families experiencing severe food insecurity based on USAID's definition.

It is a dire, sometimes seemingly hopeless situation, but i-ACT continues to advocate for peace and stability in the region. Group members and other activists recently signed a letter calling on the United States to increase its diplomatic efforts in the area. Individuals can still add their names.

Iggy has given up neither hope nor his sense of pride about who he and his teammates are, what they have done and what they can still accomplish.

"We love soccer, and we are a voice for Darfur," he said. "We are the voice of people who have spent 12 years in isolated camps and bad conditions. Twelve years means 12 generations, so this team can bring leaders and freedom. I believe that soccer can bring peace. Soccer has strong power to bring peace, and inspiration and joy."

[Brian Harper, a Young Voices columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, is an occasional volunteer for i-ACT. He is a writer, musician and community outreach coordinator for a small business. His writing has appeared in America magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His work is available at brianharper.net.]

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