Last month, I stood on the sidelines of a field that felt all too familiar, yet worlds apart. Instead of freshly-cut green grass, my feet were welcomed by hard dirt and gravel. I could hear the crunch of pebbles with every step as two teams took to the field, dust kicking up behind them. Dedicated fans squeezed into the few patches of shade around the stadium to cheer on their favorite team. And, then, the unmistakable “tweet” of a referee’s whistle blared, signaling the start of the match. Let the games begin.
I was in Garowe, Somalia — more than 8,000 miles from home in Portland, Oregon — celebrating Somali Youth Day with a 10-day youth soccer tournament hosted by Mercy Corps.
In communities recovering from conflict, we use the power of play to bridge divisions and promote peacebuilding. Our programs take advantage of sport’s popularity and convening power to mobilize young people to lead positive change, bring diverse groups together and teach valuable life skills in a way that is fun and participatory.
Decades of civil strife have afflicted Somalia, leaving a young population — 70 percent under the age of 29 — with limited opportunities to earn a decent wage. Only 2 to 6 percent of the 2.7 million Somali youth (ages 14-17) are even enrolled in secondary school. Without the skills or knowledge necessary to create a better life, many turn to piracy, extremism or intoxication with khat chewing.
But Mercy Corps is utilizing sports as a tool to strengthen the ability of youth to address the root causes of instability in Somalia and to promote peace and reconciliation.
These are young people like Abdulkhadir, the captain of a team made up of internally displaced persons (IDPs). “Football has been very beneficial in my life,” the 19-year old soccer fanatic explained. “It has helped me stay away from bad habits and bad behavior.”
At just seven years of age, he and his family were forced to flee violence in their hometown of Mogadishu, which had for years been at the heart of the Somali civil war. They found refuge in Garowe, 500 miles to the northeast.
“You can understand from the experiences of others and what’s on the news daily about Mogadishu, the differences in terms of safety when you compare the two,” he explained. “They are like night and day. It is much safer here in Garowe.”
But living on the outskirts of town in an IDP camp, the physical separation reminds Abdulkhadir daily that he is not “home.” He is one of an estimated 1.3 million Somalis who are internally displaced in their own country. They left their homes, possessions and network of support in search of a safer life. However, living in temporary housing, often lacking the most basic protection and essential services, the marginalized IDP population can experience hostility from their host communities. Initiatives like Mercy Corps’ Sport for Change programming aim to build bridges and help integrate those seeking refuge into their new community.
While it is difficult for Abdulkhadir to talk about what happened in Mogadishu, he is proud of the chance to show that he and his teammates are just like the rest of the competitors. They all share a love for the game. That desire to feel the touch of the ball on their feet, the rush of scoring a winning goal and the celebratory chants and high-fives to follow.
I’ve been playing soccer since I was five and always turn to that skill to bond and connect with others when I’m in a new place. It’s an unspoken language that can break down barriers.
That day on the pitch in Somalia, I saw the power of sports to unite communities, and was reminded why exactly I love the game of soccer.