Being a member of the W&L Women’s Soccer team inspired me to do my 8-week Shepherd Internship with Soccer Without Borders in Kampala, Uganda. Interns and employees of SWBU instruct and play soccer, teach English and Life Skills classes and engage the local community. Through this model, the organization attempts to mitigate the lack of opportunity and education in the Nsambya neighborhood of Kampala as well as address various obstacles of the refugee population it serves.
SWBU began in 2006 through the collaboration of an American named Ben Gucciardi and a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo named Raphael “Rapha” Murumbi. Rapha is college-educated and speaks English, French, and Swahili, among other languages and felt he could make a difference in the community by using soccer to connect refugee children and forgotten youth. After the community showed immense interest and support in the preliminary Soccer Without Borders camp, the program officially kicked off and worked to combat the various problems facing Kampala youth; such challenges include the lack of available space and opportunity for youth to actively explore social issues and community challenges, a lack of social capital, and a deficiency in potential opportunities for education, employment and personal growth.
Working in Kampala, I witnessed so many things- corruption, chaos, suffering, joy, commitment, learning, sadness, the list goes on and on. My favorite part of the experience was connecting with the participants, especially one family in particular. The youth in the program are unbelievable; they look at things so simply and are independent beyond their years. I couldn’t stop smiling when we played at recess and I had a minimum of four kids hanging on me at all times. I cannot describe the feeling of seeing multiple small children running towards you down the road with open arms and loud, boisterous screams of “coach!” or “teacher!” making you feel like the most important person in the world.
Playing my first soccer scrimmage with the u14 boys is an experience I will never forget. Most of them don’t have shoes and played on the field, full of dirt and rocks, barefoot. That was very painful for me to watch but the boys weren’t fazed in the slightest and were just grateful for the chance to play. They didn’t treat me like a muzungu (white person) or a girl or anything different than the rest of the team, which was especially surprising because I never got my soccer touch on the dirt pitch!
SWBU serves a need that no other organization in Kampala is serving and without it, the smart, hard-working and ambitious refugee youth would have no other alternatives. Since our participants are all refugees coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan and Somalia, I learned a lot about the lack of rights/ hardships refugees face. They do not attend school because they cannot afford to attend and/or do not understand English (mostly speaking Swahili and French, languages not spoken in Uganda). Since English is the national language of Uganda, children need to speak some English to go to primary and secondary school and eventually to communicate for opportunities in the job market.
These beautiful children with deep eyes and ebony faces have experienced more in their short lives than I will ever go through. I learned on our celebration of International Refugee Day that many participants have personal experiences with violence in the DRC, one of the local staff was a child soldier and has experiences with PTSD, and other various anecdotes such as fathers being killed or still missing. In my life skills lesson on global refugees, the students answered my question of “what challenges do refugees face?” with food, money, jobs, shoes, clothes, education, house and a lack of a mother and/or father. One said that he likes Uganda because “no one [will] come into our house and attack us.” Before this internship, I didn’t realize the chaos and fighting that plagues all of the DRC and I am heartbroken about the many lives it has affected. Yet these upsetting stories are always followed with comments on how parents and children are so appreciative of SWB and how they are eager to learn English and Life Skills (covering a range of topics such as geography, exercise, diet, hygiene, leadership, etc.) and of course how much they love playing soccer.
This internship has taught me about true fulfillment and the rewards of working for a good cause. I am inspired by the dedication of the local staff, as they taught me about tenacious perseverance and unconditional love. Throughout my internship, my English 1 Advanced Class reminded me of our motto “kumbuka wewe ni nani,” which means always remember to be yourself. My time in Uganda taught me that I don’t need much to live on and be happy and that a child is begging for things I take for granted everyday (for example, three kids asked me after reading The Cat in the Hat if they could please take the book home with them). My kids undoubtedly taught me more than I taught them and I won’t forget how easily the roles of our lives could have been reversed.
At the beginning of my internship, I felt overwhelmed by what our participants and their families have to handle on a daily basis. A quote I came across while reading depicted my feelings in the first couple of weeks: “sometimes working in a third world country makes me feel like I am emptying the ocean with an eyedropper.” However, one of my good friends from W&L responded back to my concerns and frustrations with another quote: “my life amounts to nothing more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” So although I was, at times, overwhelmed by the vulnerability and powerlessness of the refugees’ lives in Kampala, I was reminded daily of what SWB means to its participants, how overjoyed they were to see me and how proud they are of their accomplishments. The participants get to bond with their teammates, exercise and not worry or think about anything other than playing soccer. They get to yell at the top of their lungs and just be kids. They get to learn about different cultures, whether it is Uganda, the DRC, the U.S. or Canada, and be loved, hugged, high-fived, picked up, swung around, laugh and smile every day, something that none of them take for granted. I am completely confident that SWB is the highlight of everybody’s day – whether it is the kids, coaches or interns – and this experience will undoubtedly remain a highlight of my college career and always remain close to my heart.