Darfur United - Not Just Football

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Darfur United is more than soccer. It is a movement for hope. In 2012, after years of visiting refugee survivors of a crisis that has been called “hell on earth” and genocide, iACT, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, co-created with refugees on the Chad-Sudan border the Darfur United Men's Team and took it to compete in a World Football Cup. The formation of the team and its participation in a global tournament gave Darfuri refugees a world stage on which to represent their people and bring attention to some of the most vulnerable and forgotten populations. In 2018, iACT listened to Darfuri refugee women and their aspirations to play, compete, and pave the way for a generation of girls in their community; and supported them in forming the first-ever Darfur United Women's Team.

Currently, the Men's Team is on the road to the 2020 CONIFA World Football Cup. To qualify, the team must become stronger, and train and compete regularly. The Women's Team is just getting started. With all the players still based in harsh and remote refugee camps in Chad, the goal is to have the Women’s Team play its first official game in the fall of 2019 and, from there, create a roadmap for participating in the first-ever CONIFA Women's World Football Cup in 2021.

Gabriel Stauring, founder of iAct, has been with Darfur United since it’s inception and has compiled over 500 hours of exclusive video footage of the team to document their journey, from the dust of the refugee camps to the lights of the World Football Cup; and along the complex path of going from being refugees to become citizens.

The resulting film, “Not Just Football,” will be screened in Scottsdale, AZ on Thursday, February 28th (more information here). In advance of the screening, we chatted with Gabriel about the film and his experience with Darfur United.

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Can you tell us more about UNHCR?

The UNHCR, also known as the UN Refugee Agency, oversees all refugee camps around the world. When we began visiting Darfuri refugee camps on the Chad-Sudan border, we had to create relationships with individuals within UNHCR, so we could have access to the camps. Over the years, we supported their work, and we collaborated in projects that involved connecting the stories of the refugees to the outside worldHow did the UNHCR get involved with the film?

When the idea first came up about creating a soccer team made up of refugees from the twelve Darfuri camps in eastern Chad, we began conversations with UNHCR to see if they would be open to supporting what appeared to be an almost impossible road to a World Football Cup for non-FIFA teams. To our surprise, UNHCR in Chad was open to supporting and agreed to officially endorse our team's journey in 2012. 

This film was in the making from my very first trip to Darfuri refugee camps on the Chad-Sudan border in 2005. We didn't know we were making a film, but football (or soccer) was a part of every journey to that remote, dangerous place, and we knew that this beautiful game would be a great vehicle for positive change for a group of people that had experienced the horrors of genocide. We had cameras recording most of the time. I would at times be in front of the camera, and I always had a camera in my hands. I was the cameraman for a good portion of the footage used in the film. Paolo Casalis approached us some three years ago about meeting the Team, Darfur United, and shooting a documentary film. We told him that we had extensive footage in our archives that we could make available to him. He then spent time looking through it and decided that the film was already there. All he needed to do is edit and then do some follow up interviews with one of the characters.

During the production of the film, Paolo approached UNHCR directly, without us at iACT being involved, and he received the OK to mention their support of the film. I do not know the details of this interaction. 


How is the UNHCR involved/connected to soccer?

The UNHCR is only tangentially connected to soccer. They know it's an amazing vehicle to bring attention and support to their efforts with refugees. 

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What are some of the goals/aims of the film?

The film is an amazing vehicle to bring attention and support to the crisis in Darfur and the displaced people from it, but it it's also a vehicle to tell the story of refugees from around the world. There are currently almost 70 million people that are refugees and internally displaced. It is a crisis that cannot be ignored. Not Just Football uses a sport that is loved around the world to make the refugee story more accessible, and show the personal side of a huge, mind-numbing crisis. 


Why do you think there is such a strong relationship with refugees and soccer?

As I mentioned, I knew that football had this amazing power to create change. Nonetheless, it was eye-opening to see how much more it meant to the refugees. When I first started talking with them about possibly creating Darfur United, one leader told me: "Now we are a part of the world." For a population that had lost so much, having their own team gives them a sense of identity and one that is positive and offers joy and hope. 


What have been some of the best moments working on this project? Are there any highlights without too many spoilers you enjoyed most from the film?

The players went through and continue to go through so many tough moments. It's hard for me to even imagine, but they talk about being away from their families and how they worry about all their people. They feel guilty about not being to help as much as they'd like to. 

They also experience many moments of joy. They came from different camps, where they had been isolated since they were boys. Their teammates became like brothers, and I could see how meaningful that was—the connection with others that had experienced the same difficult journey. But the single most joyous moment is covered by the film, and I don't want to give it away—but they had a hard time on the field, and the film shows how the coach, Mark Hodson, and the players came together to focus on one goal and seeing the positives from the amazing journey. 

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How can people get involved/contribute?

My hope is that the Darfur United Men's and Women's teams continue to be a source of joy for the people of Darfur and for all refugees. But beyond joy, we also want these teams to attract regular people that might not know about big humanitarian issues and they might then allow themselves the opportunity to become change-makers. Football has powerful gravity. Darfur United is hope in action. 

The teams have been a labor of love, for the players, for iACT (the nonprofit that worked with the refugees to create the teams), and for supporters. We've never had large sponsorships, although we're working to find them. 

We are always looking for support, both monetarily, volunteers, and in-kind donations. 

People can learn more, follow the team, and donate at DarfurUnited.com.  They can also contact iACT Co-Executive Director Sara-Christine at scd@iactivism.org