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From Iraq to El Salvador, refugee children shine at Oakland Olympics

on August 13, 2012

Forget about the London Olympics. Friday, the real Olympic fun was right here in Oakland at Soccer Without Borders’ Oakland Olympics, an annual event bringing together displaced refugee children between the ages of 5 and 19 years old from Bhutan, Iraq, Nepal, Gabon, the Ivory Coast and El Salvador, among other countries.

Funded by the Oakland Unified School District’s Refugee Assistance Program, the Oakland Olympics were designed to coincide with the London Olympics in what Soccer Without Borders Founder and organizer Ben Gucciardi says is an attempt to help children discover the spirit of companionship that the Olympics bring.

Long jump was a big draw for teams at the Oakland Olympics.

Earlier in the week, more than 500 refugee children in Oakland came to the sports fields through the week for games marking this year’s Olympics, representing well known national Olympic soccer teams like the USA, Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, France, England and Argentina.

With many of the children being from different countries and some barely able to communicate in the same language, soccer’s global appeal and well-known playing rules made it easier for them to participate.

The Oakland Olympics take place every year in August, and at least once every four years they coincide with the actual Olympics, giving the children an opportunity to represent different countries, some of which may be far from home.  “The countries are arbitrarily assigned because we do not want to set the children against each other,” Gucciardi said. “We want to emphasize the collaborative rather than competitive nature of the games.”

“This is the biggest Olympics event we have ever had,” Gucciardi said. “We’ve had at least 115 children coming in every day for the past week to participate in the Olympics and this is a good closure to the week.”

At least 108 of those refugee children participated this year’s final day of the Oakland Olympics at the Caesar Chavez Fields on International Boulevard and 29th Avenue in Oakland, joining counterparts from different countries and forming teams to represent arbitrarily assigned countries. The games turned Caesar Chavez Fields into a hive of activity, with participants in team colors divided into small clusters and carrying banners for the countries they were representing.

A player cheers her team at the Oakland Olympics.

The children played soccer, knocking penalty kicks into the nets one country against each other, and performed the long jump, among other track and field drills, before settling down for a pizza party at lunch time. Every 30 minutes, coaches would announce the results from ongoing competitions, met by screaming cheers and celebration from participants, after which the teams would rotate from one activity to next.

Unlike the London Olympics, there were no surface-to air missile launchers on top of surrounding buildings, no protestors at the gates, nor parents to cheer competitors. For many of them, displaced from their home countries by repression and conflict, all they had was each other.

“It’s such a tangible way of letting children know how sport brings people together,” said Shea Morrissey, a coach at Soccer Without Borders who works with Women Win, a Dutch non-governmental organization that uses sport as a way of helping girls exercise their rights. “Olympics represent unity and this is a real manifestation of the power of sport to do that.”


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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