On a chilly October day in 2015, 24-year-old Rami Anis boarded a rubber boat in the Aegean Sea in Turkey. His destination was Europe and his goal was a better life away from war and hardship.
Looking at the people around him on the boat, he was horrified. They were children, men, and women. The fact that they might not make it never escaped his mind, even though he is a professional swimmer.
“Because with the sea, you can’t joke,” said the Syrian refugee.
But on Aug. 11, Rami will not be worried about swimming in the sea. He, instead, will be swimming at the Olympics. He made it safely to Belgium after days of heart-wrenching journey, from Istanbul to Izmir to Greece before setting off a trek through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and eventually Belgium.
Rami will be competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team — the first of its kind — and march with the Olympic flag immediately before host nation Brazil at the opening ceremony.
Even though I didn’t grow up watching football, admittedly I’ve developed an interest in the sport during this month-long emotional World Cup soap opera. And like me, millions of people will be glued to their television sets for this Sunday’s finals match between Argentina and Germany.
Above and beyond the superstars, the fans and controversies, I learned more about how this beautiful game is used to build communities, overcome social and cultural divides and advance peace. It seems sports have a way of changing the lives of people around the world - but what does this exactly look like?
A documentary shows the importance of sports in uniting conflict-affected communities
Ismael Bikomati in Scoring for Peace.
“When I joined the rebels, I was 12 years old. I went there because we didn’t have enough food at home,” says Ismael Bikomati in Scoring for Peace, a documentary seeking to spread the message of peace globally.
Bikomati, an athlete with a contagious smile, is a high school student in Bubanza, a city in northwestern Burundi. He is a midfielder for his team and the captain as well. He is one of a group of 500 players from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda who competed in the Great Lakes Peace Cup. It was organized by the World Bank during the spring and summer of 2012 to help former combatants rebuild relationships with their communities.
Imagine you are a poor child from Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, and have a dream to become a soccer star. Some young players come close to this dream when the International School (ISK) in Nairobi hosts its annual “Nairobi Mini World Cup”.
The Mini World Cup started after ISK’s Principal of the Elementary School, Patricia Salleh Matta, introduced a Saturday sports program three years ago and opened the school not just to its own students but to many communities around the school.
My 11-year-old son Marco and I have a passion for soccer (we call it football). In order to advance the game at ISK, where he goes, I got involved in coaching and eventually became the school’s “Soccer Commissioner.” As such, my main task is to organize soccer tournaments. The highlight of our year is the annual "Nairobi Mini World Cup," which has become a fixture for many schools and soccer clubs in the city.
Parvati Pujari, 21, is training to be a football coach. When she is not playing football, Parvati works at Magic Bus as a mentor. She is also completing a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce from the Mumbai University.
What makes all this special is that Parvati is from one of Mumbai’s 4 million extremely poor families who live on less than INR 592 – (USD 11.9) per person, per month. Her parents were constructions workers in Mumbai, helping build a five star Mall in central Mumbai. After construction finished, they moved into one 8 x 12 foot temporary room which floods every monsoon. “Our living condition is such that we get to see all seasons at close quarters,” says Parvati. Parvati’s family consists of nine people, making it difficult to make sure everyone gets enough to eat. “We mostly make do with a khichdi [rice and lentils],” she says.
What changed for Parvati was her belief in her own power to change her own – and her family’s – future by making sure she used every opportunity that was available in the system, but not used. Parvati completed school even as her girl friends were married off as children. While her peers were struggling with premature pregnancies and its attendant morbidity, Parvati was taking activity-and sport-based coaching classes for younger children, taking a job, working on her football course, and traveling abroad to raise funds for Magic Bus.
In the twelve years she has spent with Magic Bus, Parvati has demonstrated what is possible, even for the very poor to do to break out of poverty.
Soccer (aka football) is more than just a fun, popular, international sport. Soccer plays a role in international development by funding global education, effecting positive social change and producing renewable energy. Yes, renewable energy.
Soccer and Society
Earlier this summer, Pakistan defeated Sri Lanka to win the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup. Like any triumph in an international competition, there was a great sense of national pride, this time coming in a country with great need for such a unifying force. But, as Tunku Varadarajan wrote, the victory was much more than just a boost to national morale:
“As Pakistan fights for its survival against the barbarian Taliban…its people find themselves possessed of a weapon with which to vanquish the forces of darkness. I speak here not of drones or tanks or helicopter gunships, but of the glorious game of cricket.”
This is a powerful concept: that cricket is a key weapon needed to defeat the “darkness” imposed by extremism in Pakistan. But why limit ourselves to discussing the power cricket possess to fight the Taliban? What about the effects all sports have to instill happiness, empowerment, and hope in people? Could using sports for development be an unconventional tactic for the fight against poverty?
|The Olympics closing ceremony. Photo courtesy of rich115 under a Creative Commons license.|
What struck me most during the last week of events and at the closing ceremony is that we really are living in a new, multi-polar era without one single dominant country. I was fortunate to see Guo Jingjing win her springboard diving gold; Russia-USA men’s volleyball semifinal; Argentina-Nigeria soccer gold medal game; Jamaican runners dominate the sprints; Ethiopian and Kenyan runners dominate the long distances; and American runners sweep a couple of middle distance events. And while the Americans and Chinese can be justifiably proud of their medal totals, don’t forget that the member states of the EU won vastly more medals and gold medals than either of those countries. (My informal count as of mid-day Friday was that EU states had won 234 medals including 74 gold.)