Jean-Claude Munyezamu is a Rwandan Canadian who escaped the genocide in 1994 and volunteered in refugee camps in Somalia and Sudan before moving to Canada in 1998. When Jean-Claude moved to Calgary he continued to volunteer with places like The Mustard Seed so that he would meet people and continue to improve his English. Jean-Claude says that he feels that Calgary has adopted him and that he wants to do what he can to help others who are new to the city. He knows what it’s like to have to leave your home and culture and everything that is familiar to you and when he saw children in his neighbourhood struggling to fit in and falling through the cracks he knew he had to do something.
Living in a refugee camp is chaos for everyone, especially a child. There are few rules, little discipline, and no consequences. Parents, who once held jobs and were respected, are now struggling just to keep their families together. But every kid in a refugee camp plays soccer and so, through Soccer Without Boundaries, we can help bring order to this chaos.
Jean-Claude started this program in 2010 when he learned that children in the Glenbrook housing complex where he lived were getting into trouble. They were committing petty theft and vandalism and the community association asked members of the immigrant community why their children were committing these crimes. He knew why and the next Saturday Jean-Claude took some soccer balls to a green space near the housing complex and waited for kids to come and ask to play. Children can understand soccer even if they don’t understand the local language and culture. They know the basic rules of the game and they soon start to learn or re-learn, structure, authority and consequences. Most of the time kids from refugee camps don’t like rules, but they respect soccer rules. Having coaches and trainers is the best way to reintroduce discipline to kids. Their world has been turned upside down and they long for order, something familiar, and an end to the chaos.
In 2014, Jean-Claude realized that the need was expanding beyond his ability. A Board of Directors was created. In January 2016, Soccer Without Boundaries received charitable status.
We run our program every Saturday, indoor and outdoor, all year long and also started having a weeklong camp each summer. No one is turned away and all children are welcome regardless of their age or ability. We will hold the camp from August 8 to 12 this year at the Glenbrook Community Association. At the end of the week, each child will go home with a participation kit, including a soccer ball, a water bottle, a t-shirt and a sense of belonging. We also hold a barbeque and invite parents, siblings and friends so that neighbours can meet each other and form friendships and a community. Last year our camp included nearly 100 children from 19 different countries, but the need is still growing.
Children have graduated from our program after developing the team and social skills they need to play with competitive soccer teams. Many have stayed to coach and mentor younger players. Our program helps them to build self-esteem, develop leadership skills and strengthen social relationships through teamwork, fair play and conflict resolution. Every child wants to feel that they belong to a community and if they feel they belong to a soccer team, they are less likely to join a gang to get a feeling of belonging. Their parents volunteer as well so they can meet their neighbours and no longer feel isolated and alone. We have been successful integrating kids and their families into their new neighbourhoods and have received recognition from the Glenbrook Community Association and the Calgary Police Service.
We have been asked to include more children in our weekly programs and in our summer program and to expand to other parts of the city. In March 2016 we added another Saturday soccer program in Vista Heights community to help Syrian refugee children begin to feel comfortable in their new surroundings. It is wonderful to see children, who come from the chaos of war, begin to run, laugh and play again. We need your help to keep up with the demand for our programs and ensure that as many kids as possible are able to attend weekly programs and summer camps.