Suleiman Adam Burma was 17 when he took refuge in the sprawling Goz Amer refugee camp in eastern Chad, home to more than 250,000 Darfuris who have fled war in their homeland.
For half his life, the Burmese, who was once a farmer, knew no life outside the confines of the camp—and had little reason to believe he would. Then he found football. Or more appropriately, the football found him when Gabriel Steuring and Katie Jay Scott, South Bay activists, showed up in Goz Amer with a football.
Burma is among 22,000 refugees in 20 countries, from Chad and Tanzania, to Greece and the Central African Republic, who have seen their lives changed since Stauring and Scott launched the United Refugee Football Academy in 2013. Now the future of this program is uncertain after a fatal traffic accident of four Cars on Tuesday in Manhattan Beach claimed the lives of Stauring, Scott and Elementary School Principal Christian Mendoza.
“The measure of what they are leaving behind is the hundreds of people who have reached out to us in the past 24 hours and just said ‘What can I do? Stauring and Scott was founded to fund work like Refugees United.
“They did a lot of things that didn’t have an official title,” Grossman said. “They were consulting about projects of great importance, which they could not talk about because they were too dangerous.”
Escalating crises around the world have prompted many humanitarian organizations to relocate from Darfur, the region of western Sudan that was the flashpoint of a war and ethnic cleansing against poor mostly non-Arab Sudanese that began nearly two decades ago. But Stauring and Scott stayed, doubling down on their work with Refugees United Soccer Academy and other programs such as the Childhood Development Program Little Ripples.
“We chose to go to the hard places, the forgotten places. Everyone left Darfur and we said we weren’t leaving,” said Stauring, 55.
Stauring first visited Darfur in 2005 and returned 31 times to work with refugees, many of whom were born in the camps. He met Scott in Portland, where she was doing advocacy work on Darfur. When she asked to join his fledgling assistance program, he agreed, on the condition that she could increase her salary.
She did, as she accompanied Stauring to Africa for the first time in 2008, a trip that was interrupted by an attempted coup. Two years later they married and settled in Redondo Beach, where they celebrated their eleventh wedding anniversary in September by holding an iACT fundraiser.
Stauring and Scott, who grew up in Mexico and played college football at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, introduced the sport to the camps in 2012, taking the Darfur team, an all-male team of Sudanese adults, including Burma, to an international tournament.
The guys struggled on the field but the idea took hold, so a year later the couple launched a children’s academy. While they kept their promise to never leave Darfur, they expanded the program to include Burundian refugees in Tanzania, Central Africans in Cameroon and thousands more in need, an act organized and managed by a Southern California task force of five. Annual budget of less than $1 million.
The academies, designed to accommodate up to 2,000 children who train or play for 60 to 90 minutes a day, five to six days a week, primarily target boys and girls ages 6 to 13. Next March, 10 girls aged 13-17 were scheduled to travel to the World Cup for Street Child in Qatar where teams representing 21 countries will compete in a 7v7 tournament as they learn to defend themselves on issues such as access. For education and other basic needs. That flight is now unconfirmed after Tuesday’s incident.
What Stauring and Scott, 40, lacked in finances they more than make up for through the commitment and passion they inspired.
“They made the world better. They made me better,” said Aliko Alexandrian, an Armenian and former professional soccer player who was working with iACT to bring the soccer program to his war-torn homeland. Their passion, their selflessness was almost too good to be true.
“It is a huge loss for all of us. If you had more people who were willing to give everything to help others, we would be in a much better place.”
Taking football to refugee camps where there is a shortage of food, clean water and housing may seem like a case of misplaced priority, but it was the opposite. Not only was the game cheap and easy to organize, but it taught skills like teamwork and built traits like confidence and self-esteem. It also empowered the girls and women he trained to make decisions for themselves.
“It completely changed my life because I learned more important things like respect, truth and relationships,” said Burma, a trainer and coordinator of United Refugees who experienced unimaginable violence during the height of the conflict in Darfur. “I became a part of the world. For me, football is the future of the children of Darfur.”
A recent grant from the UEFA Children’s Foundation was intended to fund academies in four other camps, adding to the global reach of the program that began when Stauring and Scott took one soccer ball to a dusty corner in eastern Chad nine years ago. This expansion is put on hold as the iACT Board of Directors discovers how to replace its irreplaceable leaders.
They were great people. They were passionate. They gave a big hug, both physically and philosophically. Grossman said of Stauring and Scott, who left behind a 9-year-old daughter, Lila Paz, and an 18-year-old son named Gabo.
“They want you to continue. They have worked so hard and touched so many lives that they can no longer finish it now.”
To learn more about the program or for help, go to https://www.iact.ngo or firstname.lastname@example.org