Suleiman Adam Burma was 17 years old when he sought refuge in the vast Goz Amer refugee camp in eastern Chad, home to more than 250,000 Darfurians who fled the war in their homeland.
For half his life Burmese, once a farmer, did not know life outside the camp – and he had no reason to believe he would ever find out. Then he found football. Or, more accurately, football found it when Gabrielle Sturing and Katy-Jay Scott, two South Bay activists, showed up in Goz Amer with a soccer ball.
Burma is among 22,000 refugees in 20 countries, from Chad and Tanzania to Greece and the Central African Republic, whose lives have changed since Storing and Scott launched the United Refugees United Soccer Academy in 2013. fatal Tuesday in a four-car accident in Manhattan Beach that killed Storing, Scott and elementary school principal Christian Mendoza.
“An indicator of what they have left behind is the hundreds of people who reached out to us in the last 24 hours and simply said, ‘What can I do? “Said Ben Grossman, board member of the nonprofit iACT. An organization founded by Staring and Scott to fund work similar to Refugees United.
“They did so many things that didn’t have an official name,” Grossman said. “They consulted on very important projects, some of which they could not talk about because they were very dangerous.”
Growing crises around the world have forced many humanitarian organizations to withdraw from Darfur, the western region of Sudan, which has been a hot spot for war and ethnic cleansing against the largely poor non-Arab Sudanese that began nearly two decades ago. But Sturing and Scott stayed behind, doubling down on their work with Refugees United Football Academy and other programs like the Little Ripples Child Development Program.
“We chose difficult places, forgotten places,” said 55-year-old Storing. “Everyone left Darfur and we said we weren’t going to leave.”
Staring first visited Darfur in 2005 and returned 31 times to work with refugees, many of whom were born in camps. He met Scott in Portland, where she was advocating for Darfur. When she asked to join the start-up program he created, he agreed, on condition that she could raise her salary.
She did this when she first accompanied Sturing to Africa in 2008, a trip that was interrupted by a coup d’état attempt. They married two years later and settled in Redondo Beach, where they celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary in September with an iACT fundraiser.
Staring and Scott, who grew up in Mexico and played college football at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, introduced the sport to camps in 2012, taking the Darfur team, a team of adult Sudanese men including Burmese, to an international tournament.
The men fought on the field, but the concept stuck, so a year later the couple opened an academy for children. And while they kept their promise never to leave Darfur, they expanded the program to include Burundian refugees in Tanzania, Central Africans in Cameroon and thousands of others in need. This work was organized and carried out by Southern California staff of five and with an annual budget of less than $ 1 million.
The academies, designed for up to 2,000 children who work out or play for 60 to 90 minutes a day, five to six days a week, are primarily aimed at boys and girls aged 6 to 13. Next March, 10 girls aged 13 to 17 were scheduled to travel to the Street Child World Cup in Qatar, where teams from 21 countries would compete in a 7v7 tournament while learning to defend their interests in such matters. as access. for education and other basic needs. This trip is now unclear after Tuesday’s crash.
What Sturing and Scott, 40, lacked financial resources, they more than made up for with the commitment and enthusiasm they inspired.
“They made the world a better place. They made me better, ”said Aleko Eskandaryan, a former professional footballer and ethnic Armenian who has partnered with iACT to bring the football program to his war-torn homeland. “The way they basically look for people who need help to see their passion, their dedication, was too good to be true.
“This is such a huge loss for all of us. If you had more people like that who are just willing to give up everything to help others, we would be in a much better position. “
Bringing football to refugee camps lacking food, clean water and shelter may seem like an inappropriate priority, but it was the opposite. Not only was the game cheap and easy to organize, it taught skills such as teamwork and nurtured qualities such as confidence and self-esteem. It also enabled the girls and women who taught them to make decisions for themselves.
“It completely changed my life because I learned more important things like respect, really, relationships,” said Burma, a trainer and coordinator for Refugees United who experienced unimaginable violence at the height of the conflict in Darfur. “I have become part of the world. For me, football is the future of the children of Darfur. ”
A recent UEFA Children’s Fund grant funded academies in four more camps, expanding the global reach of a program that began nine years ago when Storing and Scott brought a single soccer ball to a dusty corner of eastern Chad. This expansion has been put on hold as the iACT board decides how to replace its irreplaceable leaders.
“They were his blood. They were wonderful people. They were passionate. They hugged each other tightly, physically and philosophically. You just wanted him to be with them, ”Grossman said of Storing and Scott, who are left with 9-year-old daughter Leila Paz and 18-year-old son Gabo.
“They would like this to continue. They worked too hard and touched too many lives to end now. ”
To learn more about the program or help, go to https://www.iact.ngo or firstname.lastname@example.org