In the dusty fields of a refugee camp in eastern Chad, women took a break from collecting water to watch as the Darfur United Men's soccer team practiced.
They imitated the men's moves. They laughed. They giggled.
Mark Hodson, a Hermosa Beach youth soccer coach, said you could see there was huge interest.
"One of the ladies came over and asked, 'What about us?'” he said.
Now, in October, Hodson and the nonprofit iACT, are launching the first female all-refugee soccer team in Darfur.
“If you ever visit the refugee camps, the one common thread that runs through the camp is that everybody loves soccer,” said Hodson, a director of soccer at Beach Futbol Club and president of Evolution Soccer.
“They live in donated clothes. You see a lot of Barcelona, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, they will write on regular T-shirts names of their favorite players. Anything that resembles a ball, they’ll kick it around. It's really the common language in all the camps... it's in their blood.”
With the help of the United Nations Refugee Agency, Hodson and iACT formed the Darfur United Men's Team in 2012. That team went on to play in the Viva World Cup in Iraq and the CONIFA World Football Cups in Sweden.
Shoeless soccer players
Hodson, born in a small town in England, said his first trip to the Djabal refugee camp planted the seed for a women's team.
Women have already been involved in coaching and teaching at iACT's Refugees United Soccer Academy. Now, a week-long women's training camp is planned in October.
“We wanted to be something for all the kids... we have staff hired from the camps to run the programs,” Hodson said. “The kids have an opportunity every week to go play and learn and be in a safe environment. Many of our original players are actually heading up those programs. They return to give back.”
Hodson said it will take time to train the fledgling soccer players.
“Like the guys, many of them have never played in shoes before, they never played on grass, most probably never played at all,” Hodson said. “It's going to be a gradual process, but our goal is to eventually take them to CONIFA World Cup. I think we will. We have the tenacity, the organization and the drive to make it happen.”
Gabriel Stauring, iACT's founding executive director, said at first the community resisted female coaches and players. But, once they saw the benefits, however, there was a "huge step forward.” Having the women in leadership positions and some playing the sport, through the academies, has helped.
“I'm sure that there's still some resistance within their community,” Stauring said. “Now we have to introduce this new idea about having a women's team and what that will bring. They know about the journey of the men's team, so it's going to be interesting to see how they feel about imagining this group of women representing Darfur, sometimes traveling and competing against other teams around the world.”
Hodson added, “We drew a line as an organization, if there's no women's program, there’s no men’s program,” Hodson said. “The only way we would continue to do this is if we had the same opportunities for everybody.”
Early days of men's team
In 2012, Darfur United was formed when 60 aspiring soccer players traveled from all 12 Darfuri refugee camps in eastern Chad. After a week training session and evaluation, the first men's team was selected.
Hodson said cutting from 60 to 16 players during the selection process was difficult.
“This is an opportunity to actually leave the camp... so it was really difficult,” Hodson said. “You also have different backgrounds coming together, different languages— it was really a monumental task.”
In that first year, the men's team traveled to Iraq to participate in the Viva World Cup, where they scored their first international goal. In 2014, they traveled to Ostersund, Sweden for the CONIFA World Football Cup.
From that visit to Sweden, the men's team built a strong relationship in the community. Most of the team currently lives in Sweden and are nearing citizenship. Some of the players were hired by the country's soccer team. A percentage of their salary goes to the Darfur United Men's Team.
“It's been an incredible journey from refugee camps, to playing soccer in Iraq, becoming assimilated in Sweden, being embraced by the community and very shortly to become citizens... they have great jobs and the community is incredible,” Hodson said.
South Bay instrumental in funding
Funding for the soccer teams comes primarily from donations, including a significant amount from beach cities residents, according to Stauring, who founded iACT in 2005.
Yearly cost for the soccer academy is $10 per student, per year, which is supported by donors, soccer clubs and businesses. After the first academy opened in 2013, seven more have opened on the Chad-Sudan border. More than 7,000 boys and girls are currently taking part in the academy.
“We're a long way from what we need to fund raise, even for the October tryouts and training camp, but that's the way we were with the men' team also,” Stauring said. “We just got to get going on it.”
Stauring added, “We're very serious about them becoming good players, but they also get good leadership skills, they get interpersonal communication skills, health and hygiene, we do mindfulness with them. So it's a very comprehensive program using soccer as the vehicle for all these very important parts of life.”
A documentary about the men's team will premiere in October at a film festival in Mexico City. The film is also expected to have a premiere in the U.S.
For more information, visit darfurunited.com.