At first glance this field seems pretty unremarkable. But first glances can be deceiving. This is a field built with love, sweat, volunteer hours and some financial investment from Canadian donations. This is another tangible space made real and safe for children, because of the help of World Vision Canada. This is a field of dreams where we are about to learn the importance of uniforms in sports in Colombia, and the need for children to have a field of their own.
We have driven to a field outside Santander De Quilichao near Taminango. This is an area that is extremely vulnerable to drugs. It is the area of Colombia with the second largest heroin use. Today I have already spoken with two amazing Colombian young men Juan and Miguel, sponsored as children, now going to university to become physical education teachers. You can read their story here. Now we are standing in a field where kids and parents gather around our tour bus ready to talk.
Here sports are a tool to avoid having kids fall in with the wrong crowd. It sounds just like at home, in some areas of Canada perhaps. But this is definitely not Canada. Colombia is a country with a very difficult history. Colombia has 47.5 million inhabitants. It is also a country of contrasts. There are very well off families and there are also some of the most impoverished vulnerable families you could ever imagine finding anywhere. Areas that shock you at how incredibly vulnerable the people there are to drugs, disease, and despair. Unemployment is at 8 %. Underemployment is higher at around 50 %. Young people find it extremely hard to gain a job. Child Labour is 12.85 % of the workforce. Colombia has an extremely high rate of displaced persons. Many estimates are as high as 4 million displaced. 14.8 million live in poverty in Colombia.
We have learned since arriving here that this is an area where drug traffickers often give children as young as ten heroin for free so they will become addicted. See the heroin problem has in some ways replaced the cocaine issue that once was rampant. But whereas cocaine was an international issue fought with international crackdowns, this heroin problem is domestic, particularly challenging in these areas near the coast where sugar cane grows and drugs can be easily hidden.
Poverty is bigger here than it is at home and the risk to youth substantial. The risk of being pulled into a life of drug trafficking is still very real in areas like Santander De Quilichao and Taminango. When children have nothing to look forward to and no spaces or activities to go to after school and on weekends, they are particularly vulnerable to becoming prey.
But right here, right now, this group is safe from all of that. This is a field of dreams, where children grow stronger every day. This is the space where they go after school, and on weekends too. They dream, they run, they play, they kick the ball – just as boys and girls might anywhere else in the world. Soccer is a common past-time for kids around the world and it is well loved here in Colombia. This sport may come by a different name depending on geography and language, but regardless of the name – soccer, or football, the game provides the same opportunity for children to grow through sports, be healthy and happy.
Here the boys ages 8 to 16 are embracing a game of soccer and racing across the field to chat with us. They clown around, collapsing in boyish heaps of wrestling tornadoes before they vanish for a second to return fully clothed in their new uniforms. Pride is splashed across their face in the biggest of smiles. Thank you’s are plentiful.
This is a field that was not available until recently. Nearby police stand watch from a building on a hill. First the children played on a different field, but the land was lent to them and the owner eventually said “No more.” Now they are here in this space that is all their own. They come daily, says Mentor and Peacebuilder, Isdali Orozeo, 23. Orozeo also works with the children’s families and the parents to help strengthen relationships within the community. She works full time in marketing, but spends many hours volunteering because the Peace Building movement was important to her as a youth. She has been part of this movement for 14 years. Peacebuilders is a youth based mentoring system that is unique to Colombia and has been very successful building healthy children starting with sports and crafts and activities that little people can easily get interested in.
Mother Nilsen Ducumi, 41, says her son has seen the benefits of the program.
“I like this space, this program because it helps the kids to have a clear head and a healthy outlook. They learn not to be involved in bad things with bad company.”
The uniforms were a gift from someone through World Vision Canada. They might have been a private donation. The beauty of the uniforms though is clear. Pride, self esteem, health. All these intangibles come from a gift such as this. But there are other benefits too. When this group of boys plays with other sectors they wear their uniforms. That sporting spirit amongst children helps foster good relationships between sectors that once did not get along because of historical poverty and drug trafficking in Colombia. The team of boys can also travel to compete now because they have uniforms. It is a rule that without a uniform a team cannot travel to compete in a tournament. This team has the tools to build a future. This group has the tools also to build peace. Sometimes that starts on a soccer field, a ripple effect carried forward on tiny feet, lanky bodies wearing brand new uniforms and smiles, kicking the ball towards the goal.
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