Nadia inspires young refugees
While they played, they were like millions of other children around Africa and the world who, for brief, stolen periods of time on street or pitch could forget their surroundings and immerse themselves in the beautiful game. Around them, scores of younger schoolchildren whose uniforms formed a purple cordon around the dusty pitch gave a semblance of normality. But this was no school match. For the girls of Kakuma are part of the “lost generation” of 200,000 young refugees who languish in one of Kenya’s biggest camps and cling to hope for a better life.
They would not be going home to the loving embrace of their parents that night, regaling them with blow-by-blow accounts of their game play.
Their parents are dead, victims to bitter war and poverty, or estranged through cruelty, and their home is now amid the clay-walled, tin-roofed huts that litter the vast encampment offering safety but little comfort against the unforgiving climate.
Many of the teenagers have lived here since they were toddlers, memories of their former homes now faded.
This match was different to the many before it. Present was one of the world’s leading international women’s football stars who had flown from her adopted home of Denmark just to play with them.
But Nadia Nadim, the 31-year-old former Manchester City player who is now a striker for Paris Saint-Germain, wasn’t simply a disinterested participant.
She brought hope because she too had once been a refugee.
Nadia had flown in with the Danish Refugee Council to assure the youngsters that there was hope for the future, however difficult their lives seemed at the moment.
Her own life in Afghanistan changed for ever when the Taliban came to power in 1999. When her father, a general with the Afghan National Army, was kidnapped and executed in the desert, her mother and sisters were forced to flee, hidden among boxes in a lorry bound for Pakistan, clutching what belongings they could manage.
One of the hundreds of huts in which people live
Nadia, then 10, ended up in Denmark, and it was while at the asylum centre on the outskirts of Aalborg that she came across the sport that would change her life.
“Next door there was a huge football club. I knew what football was because my dad was a huge fan, but I’d never played it. I saw that girls were playing and I was shocked – in Afghanistan we hadn’t even been allowed to go outside,” she says.
“We’d watch them and practise among ourselves. As the days went by we plucked up our courage and went closer. They seemed really nice and welcoming and one day, after a couple of months of this, I asked the coach whether I could play.
“The thing about football is that you don’t have to have good skills to start, you don’t have to know the language, it doesn’t matter how you look.
“I didn’t even have a pair of boots. We started training and a couple of weeks later he started giving us little notes saying, ‘Saturday, 12pm, game’. I finally got one.
“There was this second-hand store and my mum found this old green Ireland football jersey with a number 10. I wore it every day. The only time I didn’t wear it was when she had to wash it. I found some ancient football boots that were so old they had those big studs which you don’t see anymore. They were small but I didn’t care.”
Her passion turned to an obsession which she took to her new life in Denmark, persuading her school to allow her to join a boy’s team.
She was soon talent spotted and the rest is history.
For some, Kakuma has already provided footballing opportunities. Kakuma United, a mixture of refugees and locals, currently sits at the top of Kenya’s second division. The girls’ team, Kakuma Starlets, is just as impressive.
Right winger Margret Nadai, 22, was only three when her uncle brought her from the civil war ravaging Sudan to the safety of Kakuma. It is the only home she has known. “I’m alone here. Football is the first thing for me, now,” she said. “It’s very important. It’s my hope for leaving this place, for my future.”
But most are forced to rely on different skills.
Akuot Moreng Mercy, 25, had been happily living and studying in Uganda when, aged 15, her parents decided she should marry an older relative.
“I began to realise that my parents weren’t talking about me returning to school. They weren’t talking about buying the books that I needed and things like this. So I asked my dad. He said don’t worry about it, you’re getting married. I realised I had to escape.”
She managed to get away but was found. She said: “I took a bus to Kakuma refugee camp in 2015 and I started my new life.”
She added: “I want to use my story to change other people’s lives. I know what it feels like when dreams are shattered.
“There are so many young girls going through what I escaped from. We can’t pretend it’s not happening. The only power I have is my voice and my story.”
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The 12-mile-wide camp at Kakuma is managed by the Danish Refugee Council, the world’s biggest displacement charity. In 2015 it created a new way of doing things. Aid would also be distributed to local communities, to allow for a degree of integration already seen in Kakuma United.
Apart from schooling and counselling for those in need, it provides vocational courses outside the confines of the camp.
Britain is playing its part, with the Department for International Development donating £2.8million to the DRC as part of an £84million Kenyan foreign aid investment. Much of that goes to programmes aimed specifically at children and women. “We are experiencing world records of migration and refugee numbers and what most people don’t know is that you stay a refugee for 10 years on average – some for an entire lifetime,” says Annette Spanggaard, DRC director of global communication.
“These children are part of a lost generation whose lives are on standby.Every day when I see my son and daughter go to school, I keep thinking about these brave girls and boys – their talents, their dreams and the resources they represent.
“They would never have been part of any lost generation, given another and better chance in life.”
Nadia, who is also studying for a medical degree, added: “I’ve been a refugee. Imagine being in a strange place and you literally don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring. And you’re just stuck.
“I have found so much love and comfort in sport and football. It gave me an escape.
“It’s so hard to even imagine a future when you don’t have hope. But there is hope, even here, and I wanted to tell them that.”