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Americans Support Darfur Refugee Soccer Team

LOS ANGELES - Football players from the Darfur region of Sudan plan to compete in the VIVA Cup, an international competition that will begin in Erbil, in the Kurdish region of Iraq, on June 4. Supporters of the all-refugee team, Darfur United, have been working from California to make it happen.

"Darfur United draws its players from 12 refugee camps in Chad -- where it was created and is still based." The players have had only weeks to get into shape for the "VIVA Cup," a competition for nations and groups not affiliated with the International Football Federation, FIFA. But their British-born coach Mark Hodson, who lives in California, says he has a high opinion of their talent.

“Technically, pretty strong. They can do a lot of things with the ball. Physically, I was really impressed. I was surprised how big and strong they were and really athletic,” Hodson said.

As the team gets into shape in Chad, supporters in suburban Los Angeles are raising funds to pay for the trip to the Kurdish region of Iraq.

The LA Galaxy professional soccer team and its star British player David Beckham donated jerseys for a charity auction, and the players in Chad signed a commemorative ball.

The refugees fled violence in their country after civil war broke out in 2003.

Gabriel Stauring, founder the charity i-ACT, for “interactive activism,” spearheaded the drive to create the soccer team.

“Every single one of our players has the story of having their village attacked, of seeing family and friends being killed, mothers, sisters being raped in front of them, and then having to walk across the desert to survive and make it to one of these camps,” Stauring said.

Stauring says soccer has been an important diversion for the refugees.

“They just make balls out of anything. So some socks or some rubber that they put together, and they play,” Stauring said.

Despite their soccer skills, the refugee athletes will face physical as well as competitive challenges in the VIVA Cup, says physical therapist Alexandra Nuttall-Smith.

“Gastrointestinal problems, stomach upsets, because they have not traveled outside the country. This is an issue for any athlete traveling internationally. Another thing I'm concerned about is blisters,” Nuttall-Smith said.

Nevertheless the team's supporters say that taking part in the competition is itself an accomplishment, one that will draw attention to the plight of the refugees.