By Dom Smith
â€œI was born in Darfur, Sudan. I was 11 years old in 2003, when me and my family and friends started running away from my village. I lost my parents and brother, so I was just with my friends. It was a long journey â€” no food, no drink, no anything; just asking people for their food.
â€œAfter 26 days, we reached Chad. Me and my family [arrived in] one of the biggest refugee camps in Eastern Chad, [on the] Sudan border. Iâ€™ve spent all my life there; I grew up there from 2003 to 2012. We donâ€™t have good education; we donâ€™t have anything. Instead, we play football with friends. Normally, we donâ€™t have a football, so we make it ourselves by hand with socksâ€¦ we put rubbish in, tie it, and play.â€
Moubark Abdallah who tells this story, tells it from the comfort of a vibrantly wallpapered living room in Sweden. But he simply wouldnâ€™t be there now if it hadnâ€™t been for Gabriel Stauring, iACT, and the creation of Darfur United Football Club.
â€œiACT is a non-profit organisation,â€ explains its founder, Gabriel Stauring. â€œIt does work with refugee communities around the world, specifically focusing on communities that have been affected by mass atrocities â€” by genocide. We try and go to the difficult places forgotten by the humanitarian communities and by the world â€” places that arenâ€™t getting attention.
â€œWe first got involved because of what was happening in Darfur. 2004 is when I first started getting interested in what was happening there; it was being declared a genocide. I didnâ€™t have the intention of starting an organisation, but I just felt the need for the regular person anywhere in the world to connect. Hundreds of thousands of people were being killed, million displaced. Those [numbers] are mind-boggling.
â€œSo, I decided to go out to these refugee camps on the Chad-Sudan border. It was just going to be one trip; I was going to continue a normal life after that. Here I am now after 31 trips, and now we have a humanitarian organisation.
â€œThe power of that round object: a football. On my very first trip, I brought a football to the camps. It was 2005 and they still had that blank stare of people who had experienced deep trauma. But, when I brought out the football to this group of young men and boys, and we started playing, all of that just went away. They were no longer victims, they were no longer survivors, they werenâ€™t refugees. I could see it was powerful what sport could do.
â€œWe immediately started bringing equipment every time we came. But it was never enough. In 2011, we heard of this interesting World Cup that was going to happen in Iraq, of all places. It was for teams that are not recognised by FIFA. We thought: â€˜What if we put together a team and bring them to play?â€™ It seemed like an impossible idea because of the logistics and the red tape and refugees not having any travel documents.
â€œThe power of football got us there. The UN loved the idea. The Chadian government said: â€˜If youâ€™re going to pay for it, weâ€™ll allow it.â€™ Somehow, we got over the obstacles and were able to find the funding.
â€œFrom these 12 camps on the Chad-Sudan border, we asked each camp to select their best five players. We brought them all together to one camp, and I went out there with a coach, Mark Hodson. We spent a week with them, selected a team, and left them training together for two months. We came back and took them to Iraq in 2012.â€ Darfur United were off to the World Cup.
But Abdallah recalls the 2012 VIVA World Cup in Iraq with regret. â€œIt was actually so difficult. In Iraq, it was the first time in our lives that we had played on grass. It was so difficult for us to control the ball on grass. Everything looked so different. We didnâ€™t have grass, we played without boots, without shoes. Some of the guys were thinking to take their boots off and play without them on. You arenâ€™t allowed to do that.â€
In 2014, Darfur United competed in the World Cup again. This time they were off to the large Swedish lakeside town of Ã–stersund. If Iraq had offered a culture shock, a trip to Scandinavia would be something different entirely.
â€œWhen we finished the tournament, we just decided: â€˜We donâ€™t have to go back. We donâ€™t have any education; we donâ€™t have any food.â€™ We had to stay here. As refugees, it is better here,â€ admits Abdallah.
â€œWe came to Sweden as 15 players. Two of them [went] back to Chad because their families were going to get a chance to move to Canada. They needed to go with their families. We 13 players decided to stay here in Sweden [having been granted asylum]. We still have contact together â€” ten of us are still in Ã–stersund.
â€œEven in 2012, some players were saying, â€˜We have to stay here in Iraq.â€™ But Iraq is not safe. When we came here, we saw everything was perfect was us.
â€œI have been back [to Chad] twice. I collect footballs, football boots, some jerseys, and then package them into big bags and take them down to the refugees because I know what the situation there is like. Every time, if somebody is going down to visit his family, we just package everything and send it back with him.â€
The townâ€™s biggest football club, Ã–stersunds FK, is where current Brighton & Hove Albion manager Graham Potter first earned his reputation as an overachiever in the sport. Under his watchful eye, they won 2017/18 Europa League fixtures against the likes of Galatasaray, Hertha Berlin and Arsenal. Former players of the Allsvenskan outfit include Ravel Morrison, Ken Sema and Mo Barrow.
â€œIâ€™m the kit man now at Ã–stersunds FK. Iâ€™m always there for training, for games, all the time. Iâ€™m starting to learn a lot from the coaches. I have contact with academies in the camps, so I share information with them to help them out.â€
Manager Mark Hodson has been part of the Darfur United project from the outset. Although he is yet to see his side claim a competitive victory, he feels the team have improved hugely in the eight years since they first formed.
He offers his honest assessment: â€œI would say our style of football is very cavalier! But itâ€™s evolved. We now have the introduction of some more US-based players, plus those in Sweden. Iâ€™d say they are a very attack-minded group. But theyâ€™ve also learned to be more organised and more disciplined. Theyâ€™ve improved enormously from where they were to where they are today. Weâ€™ve come a long way.â€
But while Darfur United has offered a wonderful release for a seemingly hopeless community, there still remained a large group that it hadnâ€™t yet managed to reach.
People were always watching the training sessions at the refugee camps, Stauring reveals. â€œOn one side were usually women and girls. At one point, they were calling me to come over. One of the young women said: â€˜What about us?â€™ I said, â€˜You want to play also?â€™ They said: â€˜We want the same thing that they [the men] have.â€™
â€œFrom right then, we promised them they would get their own team. Since 2013, we have had girls and women coaching and playing. They had never played before â€” itâ€™s just not part of their culture. They love the opportunity. There was some pushback from some of the more conservative men in the camps. They just said: â€˜Women donâ€™t play here.â€™ But when we talked with the women, they wanted it so much.
â€œAll eight camps have women coaches and girls training. Two years ago, we held a training camp for women to start the Darfur United womenâ€™s team, and we used the coaches that had already been training the girls since 2013 as the core. So now they had at least some experience touching the ball. It was exciting â€” they are competitors, they are fierce, they are excited about the future of someday getting onto the pitch and competing against another team. The pandemic does put a pause on it, but weâ€™re looking at, as soon as we can, doing something in Chad.
â€œThey will be breaking moulds and being pioneers. In many ways, itâ€™s even more exciting than what we have done with the menâ€™s team. Itâ€™s really breaking barriers; itâ€™s transformational for their community. In general, women donâ€™t take positions of leadership, but now we go to these camps and see that the women carry themselves differently. There are little girls looking up to the coaching and saying, â€˜I can be somebody like them’.â€
Menâ€™s player Abdallah helped against the backlash when the womanâ€™s team was first formed. â€œEvery human has the right to live and do their own things. Itâ€™s very good, itâ€™s so important. Most people are understanding now. This has never happened before.â€
Stauring sits back and reflects on what he has created at Darfur United. But he is ambitious, and he needs people to get involved in order to continue his life-changing work. â€œFirst of all, get informed. Learn the story. We have our platform, www.DarfurUnited.com, where people can read about the menâ€™s and the womenâ€™s teams. iACT is a very small team of staff. We rely on a big, strong, powerful pool of volunteers. People reach out, we have a conversation with them, and theyâ€™re surprised at how theyâ€™re able to contribute. We always need funding. People who can donate: itâ€™s more than welcome. Itâ€™s not easy to do all of this â€” itâ€™s very costly.
â€œFor us, we also have the greater mission. Darfur United is more than just football. Itâ€™s a movement for hope. It gives us a vehicle to tell the story of refugees and all the strength and power they have.â€
â€œA lot has changed in the last few months within the Darfur region,â€ notes Hodson, who spends his time away from Darfur coaching youth soccer in Manhattan Beach. â€œBut there are still tremendous issues there. I believe some of our players still hold in their hearts that one day they can return home, be reunited with their families, and live in the land they love so much. But itâ€™s such a volatile region, itâ€™s difficult to predict.â€
â€œI have a very special bond with these players. I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to be involved in such a unique, incredible, rewarding project. We were hoping to play in the World Cup this year,â€ but COVID-19 saw the 2020 CONIFA World Cup in North Macedonia cancelled altogether.
The pride with which Hodson talks about the team he coaches is very telling. â€œWeâ€™re a small team in terms of resources, but theyâ€™re aware theyâ€™re a big team in terms of the people that are rooting for them and want them to do well. We want this to be a â€˜foreverâ€™ project.â€
Eight years ago, the seeds were sewn. You sense Darfur Unitedâ€™s growth is only getting started.
More of Dom’s work can be read at EnglandFootball.org.