8/6/2014 8:49:00 AM Refugee World Cup allows time to forget troubles, focus on soccer
Catholic News Service photo
Players from Cameroon and Mali battle for the ball during the Refugee World Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Aug. 3. The soccer tournament was an initiative of Caritas in the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross and other U.N. agencies and private entities.
Catholic News Service
SAO PAULO — They came from the most violent parts of the world. Sixteen teams made up of refugees from countries such as Angola, Syria and Mali spent two days trying to forget the troubles back home and focus on one thing: soccer.
The Refugee World Cup in Sao Paulo in early August was an initiative of Caritas in the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross and other U.N. agencies and private entities. The tournament was designed to bring together people from different backgrounds and cultures who faced similar difficulties and are trying to adapt to a new life in Brazil.
Nasir Ahammed Feni, 35, of Bangladesh, has been in Brazil for 14 months and is in the process of obtaining political asylum.
"In Bangladesh I was a political science student and became active in politics," he told Catholic News Service. Due to his involvement in political parties he became fearful for his life and left his country. Now he works as a day laborer while waiting for his asylum request.
Father Marcelo Monge, director of Caritas in the Sao Paulo Archdiocese, said this type of event helps refugees' self-esteem.
"They conquer back some of the dignity they lost when they left everything behind in their troubled countries and started over in Brazil," said the priest.
Jose Pele Messa was one of the organizers of the Refugee World Cup. He came from Cabinda, a territory annexed by Angola but separated by a thin strip belonging to Congo.
"Cabinda does not even have a border with Angola, and yet it (Angola) says we are part of its territory," he said.
Messa has been in Sao Paulo for the past year and has just started working at St. Jude Thaddeus Parish. He said he fled Angola after years of looking for decent work.
"In Angola those from Cabinda are fiercely discriminated. It became too dangerous for me to stay," he said, almost in a whisper. He left behind a wife and four children, who he hopes can one day join him in Brazil. "My finances are not very good right now, but I will get them here someday."
"We are people running away from conflict, we want peace, real democracy, justice and for human rights to be respected where we live," said Messa.
He said he saw the Refugee World Cup as a way to bring people together.
"Soccer has a way of bringing peace and union," he said. He recalled that in 1967 factions fighting the Nigerian civil war agreed to a 48-hour cease-fire so they could watch soccer giant Pele and the Brazilian team play a game in Nigeria's capital, Lagos.
"Soccer does this to people, it brings them together" Messa said.
Luiz Fernando Godinho, spokesman for UNHCR, said Brazil has 6,800 recognized refugees from 80 different countries. In late July the Brazilian government approved 680 asylum applications, more than the entire year of 2013. Since 2010 the number of asylum requests has grown by 800 percent, his agency said.
"Persons in conflict zones see Brazil as a place with a multicultural society, where there is religious liberty, democracy and where human rights are respected," said Godinho. "Today Brazil has a greater presence in the world, its economy is doing well, and it is known for treating foreigners well."
As he screams out the game's play-by-play on an improvised audio system, Romeo Fomo, 30, encourages those on and off the field. Werewolf, as he is known artistically, is from Cameroon and was a rapper in Angola. He has been living in Sao Paulo for two years.
"My songs are not only against Angola or Cameroon's governments. They are against all governments," he said. He still writes his anti-government songs, but he said that in Brazil he will not be imprisoned, or worse, for his lyrics.
Father Monge said although the idea for the Refugee World Cup came from nongovernmental organizations, the success of the event came from the organizers -- the refugees.
"The success of this cup is theirs. They did everything, from finding a place to hold the games, to inviting the teams, to setting up the rules for the championship ... everything," he said.
The final, after ending in a tie, went to a shootout, with Nigeria beating Cameroon 3-1.