Oakland International High School

Back in 2017 my friend Tarren happened to mention she was chaperoning at a prom for Oakland International High School. https://www.oaklandinternational.org/

Oakland International High School provides a quality alternative education for recently arrived immigrant students in English language acquisition and in preparation for college. Their diverse students become active participants in the community while learning in small groups through collaboration and interdisciplinary multimedia projects.

So many undocumented immigrant children come over on their own, with the majority not speaking English and knowing no-one. Once I heard their story I was hooked and desperate to help out. A month later and I was photographing the prom and spending the evening with the most amazing people.

When the co-principal of the school, Carmelita Reyes, contacted me to see if I would photograph graduation I jumped at the chance. The whole theater was filled with students and their families and friends, and we applauded every single one who went on stage to receive their diploma.

I was taken away by Edourdo, who gave the valedictorian speech. He arrived from El Salvador two years prior and was head of his class, graduating with a 3.8 and a scholarship for computer science. His was an inspiring story and the first of many I heard that day.

After graduation I reached out to the school to see what else I could do to help, and that is how a non-footballer became involved with Soccer Without Borders.

Soccer Without Borders

Soccer plays a unique role at Oakland International High School. While OIHS students speak more than 32 different languages, they all share the language of soccer. Through soccer, students build authentic cross-cultural relationships that play a key role in helping new students adjust to their lives in the US. These friendships carry over to the school day, proving vital in helping de-escalate conflict and building a harmonious school environment.

Since 2007, OIHS has partnered with the non-profit organization Soccer Without Borders (SWB) to lead soccer programming at the school. SWB uses soccer as a vehicle of positive change, providing refugee and immigrant youth a toolkit for growth, inclusion and personal success. At OIHS, SWB leverages students’ passion for soccer to ensure they are successful off the field. Since 2008, 95% of regular participants in the SWB program have graduated from OIHS. Since 2008, more than 200 female OIHS students have been supported to join their first ever organized sports team. 

SWB is an all round amazing non-profit organization that works with immigrant and refugee youth across the US and now in Nigaragua and Uganda. Their core values, as stated on their website, are:

SWBs Position on Inclusion

As an organization that serves refugee youth in both the United States and internationally, we have had the privilege of working with young people from more than 60 different countries. Our participants and their families have fled some of the world’s most challenging conflicts, hailing from the Central African Republic, Somalia, Afghanistan, Congo, Eritrea, Honduras, El Salvador, Burma, Burundi, Iraq, and most recently Syria, among many more. Refugees are one of the most vulnerable populations in the world, with nearly 30 million children displaced from their home countries.

Leaving your country, your home, is not a decision that any family wants to make. The soccer field is one of the few places where youth who have experienced this kind of transition immediately feel confident, counted, and like they can express themselves and contribute. Soccer Without Borders programs are designed to address the complex barriers refugees face, reaching and retaining youth that too often fall through the cracks. Our holistic program model equips these youth with the tools and confidence they need to overcome adversity and reach their inherent potential.

Youth Festival in Kampala

After spending some very happy weekends with the U18 and U12 boys teams I had the opportunity to go to Kampala in Uganda for the annual youth festival run by SWB.

Festivals at SWB Uganda are week-long events held during mid-semester breaks and out-of-school time that build community amongst the diverse youth of the Nsambya and Kirombe neighborhoods. Festival curriculum maintains a balance between fun  soccer drills and games, music and dancing, and team-building activities. Each festival week is designed around a specific theme with the goal of supporting youth to work collaboratively, form new friendships, exchange across cultures and backgrounds, and have fun!

Uganda is home to one of the largest populations of refugees and internally displaced peoples in Africa. In the UNHCR’s 2017 Global Trends Report, Uganda was listed as #3 on the list of countries, worldwide, receiving the most displaced persons. Of the 68.5 million worldwide, 1.4 million of those displaced are living in Uganda, many having left from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Because of the relatively hospitable policies toward victims of forced migration, refugees from all over the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa region come to Uganda to seek security and peace within its borders.

About SWB Uganda

Most refugees are brought to one of the many refugee settlements in the area, where they are given a small piece of land, basic non­-food items and basic food rations from the UN/World Food Programme. However there are now nearly 100,000 refugees who have opted out of the settlement life in pursuit of other opportunities and are living in Uganda’s urban areas foregoing all support, financial or otherwise, from the United Nations.​

While refugees remain in Kampala in search of better social services including education, healthcare, communication, development, and opportunities for their futures, they face great obstacles. Language barriers, xenophobia, lack of local recognition of scholastic and professional diplomas, lack of financial resources, and absence of institutional support all inhibit refugees from starting their lives anew while living in a new place indefinitely and sometimes permanently.

Among all of these barriers, refugees who have settled in urban areas often say that the biggest barrier they face in Uganda is a lack of access, for adults and children alike, to educational opportunities. As a result, there is a huge need for youth-centered programs to provide positive learning opportunities and create support networks to ensure that students progress academically, stay healthy, and reach their full potential.

My Visit to Nsambya

After a 34 hour journey I headed to the address given – “Nsambya Gogonya, near the Catholic Church (From Makindye, take Nsambya Rd up the hill towards the church. Take a right on Kiggundu Road. Follow Kiggundu Rd straight and stop at the boda stage under the tree)”. I was to discover Kampala was very different from anywhere I had been.

Our living quarters were shared with visiting priests and incredibly serene. They were a relatively short walk from the SWB Uganda headquarters, and as we walked over for the first time I was struck with how lush and green the countryside was.

During my visit I witnessed the pure joy that having a soccer family brought to these children and young adults. We danced, had lessons and of course played a lot of soccer! For many of them going to a SWB program gives the opportunity for a definite meal – rice and beans. The first day I was on dishwash duty, washing 50 plates in cold water with bar soap as soon as they were empty in order to feed the next 50 and so on. Not that there was a lot to wash – not a crumb was left on any plate and I’m not surprised. Best rice and beans I’ve ever tasted.

We were honored to be invited to church on Sunday by the local priest. It was an extra special service – a woman in the community had just had twins which was a big deal and the whole town was out to celebrate. SWBs head coach Jules was in training to be a priest – I think he would make a great one!

Ugandan Wildlife Conservation Education Centre

On my way back to the States I spent a day in Entebbe so I could visit the Ugandan Wildlife Conservation Education Centre.

Although it operates as a zoo the centre’s main focus is rescuing, caring for, and rehabilitating animals rescued from poachers or trafficking.  Many of the animals were intercepted during smuggling attempts, saved from certain death, or found being kept illegally as pets in people’s homes.  When found, they are brought here to be cared for, and where possible, many are returned to the wild when the time is right.

I was particularly keen to meet one-year-old baby Edward. He was rescued and brought to the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre after he was found stuck in mud aged just 5 days old. The rest of the herd had given up and abandoned him and although rangers tried to find them, they had moved on.  So Edward was brought here to his new home.

Edward was delighted to see me.  Elephants are very social animals and he’s very lonely living here all by himself with just his ranger friends for company.  Baby elephants are fragile and susceptible to all sorts of diseases, so he’s being kept in quarantine until he’s bigger and stronger.  When he’s older, he’ll be introduced to Charlie the adult elephant and hopefully they’ll be besties.

I have so much love for Soccer Without Borders and the work they do. I will definitely be back to visit my friends.  Please look at coach Jules in this video – such an inspiring young man and one I am proud to call a friend: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6m5uXA_Obpg

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