Darfur United: The Incredible Football team of the Sudanese Genocide Refugee Camp

An enthralling story about the Darfur United Football Club, and how football is inspiring the movement to bring hope to the refugee camps at the Chad–Sudan border. This piece has been narrated by Srinwantu Dey and features an exclusive interview of executive director of iACT, Gabriel Stauring – the pioneer of the vision.

Like any other day, Ismail’s mother was walking to their village’s market one fine morning, when all hell broke loose. On that infamous day, a few days before civil war broke out in the Darfur region of western Sudan, the pro-Government militia gang of Janjaweed attacked civilians. Major armed conflict in Sudan started in February 2003 when the rebel groups of Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) revolted against the government of Sudan to protest against the growing oppression of Darfur’s non-Arab citizens. Janjaweed is the notorious Sudanese native militia group that mostly recruits indigenous Afro-Arabians. The Sudanese Government used it against rebel groups and civilians when insurgence escalated in 2003. Ismail’s father was shot and badly hurt right in front of his mother.  As he lay on the ground—dying—Ismail and his mother came and sat next to him, desperately seeking aid and trying to give him some relief. Ismail’s father foresaw the miseries awaiting his family. He asked his wife to take all their seven children and escape this death zone.  Ismail asked his mother to find the other young children, and he went to collect some animals for the long walk towards Chad’s border. Unfortunately, his father died. The mother and her seven children managed to survive, and all of them now live as refugees in Chad.

Darfur Genocide in different phases
Darfur Conflict – in different phases

You know my mother. We met before”, Ismail uttered in broken English. They were in an aeroplane, flying to Iraq. He had a small Polaroid picture in his hand; he was looking at it and was showing it to the other man sitting next to him. That was his mother with his other siblings in the picture. The man identified his mother. He had met Ismail before, when he was younger. Such coincidence! Ismail kept telling him their stories, about their homes, and their lives in the refugee camp. Ismail was flying to Iraq in 2012 to participate in the World Cup for non-FIFA nations—VIVA World Cup. The VIVA World Cup is an international football tournament organized by the New Federation Board for teams not affiliated with FIFA. It was held every two years. Ismail was one of the two goalkeepers of the team, and a born leader. Yes, you read it right. The Darfur refugee camp has a football team of its own! The team members have endured unbelievable hardships of the vast refugee camp of Chad, escaping from the terror of genocide.  Yet, they have continued to play—for their life, for their existence.

Meet the other man in the scenario—Gabriel Stauring. He is the executive director of iACT—a Los Angeles-based organization providing humanitarian action to aid, empower, and extend hope to those affected by mass atrocities. He and his team have been tirelessly working in the Darfur refugee camp (and many other locations) since 2005. Those were the days before refugees were a “trending topic”, the tragic photograph of the toddler had not become viral, and Bayern Munich or AS Roma weren’t showing their support. Stauring and his colleagues were the silent workers who facilitated refugee-led education and human rights programmes that built resilience and cultivated recovery in refugee camps in eastern Chad. Not only that, he pioneered the idea of Darfur refugee camp’s football team as well. “After many trips and many duffel bags full of balls and equipment delivered to the camps, in 2011 we heard of an opportunity to create a team and take them to compete in a tournament for non-FIFA teams in Iraqi Kurdistan”, said Gabriel. The vision of a football team was about to take shape. This was the time when all other humanitarian organisations (including UN) had started reducing their aids and services to the long-suffering crisis zone and FIFA, as world football’s governing body, had taken no significant step in utilizing football to help the community.

The iACT team giving a theoretical lesson to the DU players in the training camp
The iACT team giving a theoretical lesson to the DU players in the training camp

Since 2003, the Darfur region of western Sudan has been the site of terrible misery, violence, blood-shed, death, and displacement. It has led to the death of thousands of people and the displacement of more than two million Sudanese. United Nations has described it as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The United States government has termed it “genocide”, comparing it to the gory 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of people remain in camps across the border in eastern Chad, reluctant to return home even after a whole decade because of the ongoing insecurity, loss of property, and fear of oppression. These refugees remain dependent on humanitarian aid for survival. Gabriel and his team were one of them. The lives inside the camps were not even close to being privileged. It is a different kind of world, where, as soon as people go outside the camp, near the border, they get attacked by Janjaweed. Numerous women have been reported abused and raped while collecting wood outside the camp. There is scarcely enough drinking water to stay alive, and refugees face an acute lack of nutritious food and a growing risk of a Hepatitis E outbreak.

Darfur United
Darfur United training camp on rough desert patches

However, these people haven’t lost hope. Remember Terry George’s touching drama “Hotel Rwanda”, where Paul Rusesabagina (portrayed by Don Cheadle) stood tall and saved the lives of over a thousand of refugees amidst a political genocide? The lives of Darfuri refugees are not much different. Health, food, shelter, education, safety, clothing, belonging—the basic needs of humanity have been harshly compromised. Kudos to Gabriel and his iACT team for doing what they do. Rusesabagina provided the refugees shelter; the good folks of iACT provided them hope and joy—they built a football team.

So, why football?

From my very first trip to the refugee camps in 2005, I could see that there was something powerful about what football could do to the spirit of a child who had experienced severe trauma. When I brought out a ball and started playing with them, they were no longer refugees or survivors. They were footballers, experiencing the same joy that any child around experiences when kicking a ball with friends” answered Gabriel. Children, probably, have the worst standard of living in these camps. Like Ismail, most of them are still reeling from some sort of severe trauma. Some of them have seen their parents or siblings being shot in front of their own eyes, some were abducted and still get nightmares, while some have seen their own houses set on fire. A drawing exhibition by refugee children back in 2005 reflected these horrific incidents. One teenager drew a squadron of helicopters in the sky above a house on fire, while another drew anonymous men pointing guns at family members. The situations were such that frightened children couldn’t sleep properly due to severe trauma, let alone have a healthy existence. And what can uplift the spirit of distressed kids more than the beautiful game?

Darfur United
No infrastructure yet no lack of passion for the Darfur refugees

They started playing in the desert, amidst the crisis. They started playing to rebuild their lives. They started playing to rise above dark memories. “First of all, soccer brings them joy. The value of that is immeasurable. Their lives are difficult, and there is a loss of hope, as they see the world leave them behind. But soccer keeps them connected with that world and with a sense of hope”, Gabriel expressed. “The Darfur United Team offers hope and gives Darfuris a vehicle to tell their stories to the world.” It was named “Darfur United”.

“First of all, soccer brings them joy. The value of that is immeasurable. Their lives are difficult, and there is a loss of hope, as they see the world leave them behind. But soccer keeps them connected with that world and with a sense of hope”

The task was not easy. There were logistical, financial, and motivational issues to consider while making a team from people still suffering from the memories of the brutal genocide. However, when the team heard about the tournament to be held at Kurdistan, Gabriel’s team started to reach out to several refugee leaders and started asking the refugees themselves. The response was significantly positive. They discovered that the passion for football still survived in the midst of heartbreak and trauma. “The camps are divided, the same way most of the world is divided, in their loyalties. About half love Barcelona, and the other half love Real Madrid.” Gabriel told us. “Somehow, children are wearing jerseys with the names of their football heroes, Messi and Ronaldo, and they have heated discussions about who is the better player.

darfur united
The women and kids of the Refugee Camp are watching a practise session of the lads

The Darfur United Soccer Academy (DUSA) was launched initially with two camps and they have a plan to extend the project to 12 camps within the next two years. DUSA is a comprehensive child development football curriculum that works with refugee men and women to provide a safer place for refugee children to learn the game, maintaining health. “The DU Soccer Academy provides a space for them to thrive and participate in something positive. The children see their coaches, who are refugees themselves, and it gives them something to aspire to. The Academy also teaches about leadership, mindfulness, and caring about each other.”, Gabriel affirmed. Darfur United is a team selected from 12 camps from different tribes. It is more than just a team for the refugee camp now. When international media and other organizations forgot them and their problems, Darfur United helped them to reach out to the world. These people, who had lost most of their families in the unending violence of their nation, played like a band of brothers. “Now we are a part of the world,” exclaimed a refugee leader. However, the best part of all this is that these people now have their own home-grown heroes to look up to. Children want to be like Moubarak Haggar, their own hero from one of the camps who scored the first and only goal for Darfur United in the VIVA World Cup at Iraqi Kurdistan. The goal was against the Western Saharan team, though Darfur went on to lose the match 5–1.

For obvious reasons, this has been a difficult journey for everyone involved. The extreme remoteness of the Chad–Sudan border was itself a giant obstacle. The team started playing football inside the camp, on dirt fields, and mostly without shoes.  The situation was hostile too. These were young kids recovering from severe trauma and deprivation. Many team members hated each other initially. Another problematic area was conflict between the tribes. Though Arabic is the common language which all the tribes of Darfur speak, they all have their own tribal languages that they speak among themselves.  Gabriel recalled one such incident: “There were issues from day one. On our very first meeting with the players, they stated that they did not want to mix with members of tribes that were not their own, and that they wanted the tents that would be their homes for the tryouts and training to be assigned depending on the refugee camps they came from. It was an important moment because this could set the tone for the rest of that tournament and even for the team in general going forward.  Right then, we told them that it was not going to be an option. They would have to be united, just as the name of their team said.  They would have to be a true team, working together and taking care of each other—on and off the field. If anyone did not like it, they could leave.” Fortunately, everyone opted to stay back. The beauty of the game overpowered tribal conflict. It was a big win. 60 odd players initially turned up for the trial and 20 of them were selected to stay in camp Djabal and train for two months. The final team of 16 flew to Iraq in 2012 to play the VIVA World Cup. It was the first plane ride and five-star hotel stay for most of them. Also, most importantly, they played like a team representing a forgotten community. When they did return after those two months, all players who belonged to different camps and tribes were united like a family. They were teaching each other their tribal languages, sharing stories about their families and camps, and creating bonds that would last forever. Players like Ismail who lost their close ones are now inspiration for thousands. Gabriel echoed, “Football has immense power to bring people together, if used in a positive and inclusive way.

Darfur United
United we stand – the mantra for survival

Darfur is still on fire. Villages are being burnt and buried, and violence has escalated severely. Millions of people are still displaced and waiting to return. Millions more are missing. Mass rapes have become common practice. However, the government has not shown any intention of curbing the armed civil war. Slowly, the media and humanitarian organizations are losing interest, funding, and resources. These people in those refugee camps of Chad-Sudanese border are still surviving on a thread of hope. Darfur United has created a new identity for these displaced children, something to keep them fighting for.

Remember the last line of the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ where Pat Archer asked “They said that there wasn’t any room? while walking with his family towards the bus; Paul Rusesabagina smiled and answered “There’s always room.


Special Thanks to executive director of iACT Gabriel Stauring and Director of Operations and Community Involvement of iACT Katie-Jay Scott Stauring for your kind participation and support. The images are solely copyrighted to iACT org.

If anyone is interested to be part of the project or wishes to donate to this great cause please avail this link.