AFCON game takes Nigerian refugees’ minds away from war horror

By Ndi Eugene Ndi

Saratu Yakubu, was just 10 when the Boko Haram Islamist group attacked their village in Nigeria’s North Eastern Borno State killing people and burning homes. Together with fortunate family members, they escaped from the village unhurt.

Walking mainly on foot, they moved to a village near the border with Cameroon where they were assisted by United Nations, UN Officials who registered them. They were then taken to Cameroon.

Nigerian refugees from Minawao at the Roumde Adjia stadium in Garoua during AFCON 2021 group match between Nigeria and SudanPhoto credit: UNHCR Cameroon

The now 19-year-old secondary school student is one of the nearly 70,000 refugees in the Minawao Refugee Camp in the Far North region of Cameroon who have fled violence linked to the Boko Haram insurgency in neighbouring Nigeria. They have been living with memories of horrors of war since 2014.

Saratu who now plays football as a striker for the female football team of Minawao Refugee Camp was among the hundreds of fans who cheered the Nigerian national football team, the Super Eagles during their 3-1 victory over Sudan in their second Group ‘D’ fixture at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations, (AFCON) tournament in the northern city of Garoua on Saturday January 15.

“I came to support my country, Nigeria. You know I cannot forget my country even when I am not there, I was born there and I cannot forget that,” Saratu said. She was part of an all-female football team transported from the Far North region down to the Garoua to watch the game.

CAF President, other officials greeting Nigerian refugees after AFCON match between Nigeria and Sudan
Photo credit: UNHCR Cameroon

For their years spent at the camp, Saratu, just like her team captain, Lucy Bitrus have not had such a relieving moment that makes them forget about the horrors of war. But when South African referee, Victor Gomes sounded his final whistle marking the end of the AFCON group match which the Eagles won, Saratu and teammates were in joy.

“During that time we were so happy, jumping up and down and dancing because our country has won…I forgot about everything, I even forgot that I am a refugee,” Saratu narrated.Like Saratu and teammates Luka Isaac, president of Nigerian refugees in Minawao who accompanied the ladies to Garoua said, they felt being among people and watching the Nigerian players live was so exciting.

Sara and Luka had achieved their first objectives when they watched their idols respectively Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho in action live during the game. And throughout the game, Luka, the coach and the youth president of Nigerian refugees in the camp who were the only men who traveled with the team joined the ladies in cheering the players.

“During that match I felt like I am no longer a refugee, in fact I felt like I was somewhere in paradise…the feeling of being among joyous people who are singing, dancing made me feel as if I am in a different world. This shows we are not subjected to stay only in the camp,” Luka said.

The joy continued till the end of the match. “At the final blow of the whistle with Nigeria winning 3-1, I was jumping in joy and some people around me were just cheering as I displayed because I had a vuvuzela which I was blowing. Even the UNHCR representative in Cameroon who is a white man came dancing with me,” Luka explained describing the moment as lifetime experience “my morale was really high and I did not feel I am a refugee”.

Horrors of war erased

The president of the Nigerian refugees in Minawao thought his joy had reached apex, but it was just the beginning as he will together with the all-female football team of Nigerian refugees have the opportunity to greet the president of the Confederation of African Football, (CAF), organisers of the tournament.

“In fact that is when my morale was very high again, I was very excited…in fact, at that time the horrors of the war in my country were erased,” Luka explained.

The refugees were transported from the camp to Garoua for the game within the framework of a partnership between CAF and the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency that aims to use football – Africa’s most powerful platform and prime entertainment – to bring hope to the continent and vulnerable people.

“Sport is a powerful tool for inclusion, human connection, and health – especially for people forced to flee,” says Helen Ngoh, Communication Associate for UNHCR Cameroon.

“When UNHCR noticed that Nigeria will be playing in Garoua, which is relatively close to Minawao, it provided an opportunity to facilitate the trip for a few refugees to come cheer for Nigeria, their country of origin, and at the same time be a part of the AFCON taking place in their host country,” she said appreciating Africa’s soccer governing body for offering them the opportunity.

Ngoh disclosed that the female footballers of the refugee camp have competitions amongst each other in the camp, but sometimes they play against other teams from out of the camp. “They play in men’s jerseys and don’t have football boots, but they love the game. Many of the girls say Ahmed Musa is their hero and some would like to pursue football as a career,” the UNHCR Cameroon Communication Associate said further.

Cameroon’s hospitality to refugees

Football they say, has an extraordinary power – an amazing ability to bring all kinds of people together and inspire positive values. The ‘unifying game’ crosses all kinds of social barriers.

“What better way of showing during the AFCON Cameroon’s legendary hospitality towards over 450,000 refugees than seeing refugees in stadium, waving a banner that says “Minawao Refugees” as part of its message,” Ngoh says adding that bringing the immigrants to the stadium was also to further connect them with communities that have welcomed them with such generosity.

“It was amazing to hear people in the stadium saying that they didn’t look like refugees, because they looked like any other supporter who showed up at the stadium. What does a refugee look like? They are normal people, who were forced to flee their homes to save their lives,” Ngoh said.

Some 100 refugees from the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Rwanda had earlier taken part in the opening ceremony of the tournament in Yaounde on January 9. This was thanks to the partnership between the UN Refugee Agency and the African soccer governing body.

“CAF understands the influence of football – as Africa’s most popular sport – not just to be a source of entertainment but a catalyst for social change in the continent,” the continental soccer body said in a statement on its website.

Luka’s prayer is that Nigeria or Cameroon should qualify for the finals so that they can have the opportunity to go again and watch live. “If any of the two countries win the trophy, I will be happy because Nigeria is home and Cameroon is my home too,” Luka said.

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