On soccer fields in Minnesota, team of Haitian boys get away from destruction back home

By Jon Krawczynski, AP
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Haitians use soccer in Minn to move on from quake

BLAINE, Minn. — Josue Alexi has been on the losing end nearly all of his 14-year-old life.

He’s been beaten by poverty. By hunger. And, most recently, by the magnitude-7 earthquake that leveled much of Haiti, his country, in January. Little Josue’s joy was buried underneath the rubble, right next to homes, vehicles and as many as 300,000 people who died.

“Nobody smiled,” said Tony Sanneh, a former Major League Soccer player who traveled to Haiti with the Los Angeles Galaxy in March. “The people were just sad. They were just trying to get by.”

Josue found his smile on the lush, green soccer fields of suburban Minneapolis, thanks to the Galaxy and the Tony Sanneh Foundation, which brought the boy and 14 teammates here to participate in the largest youth soccer tournament in the country.

It only got better for the Haitians as the tournament progressed, culminating with a victory on Saturday for the Schwan’s USA Cup weekend championship in the Gold Flight, which is just one step below the elite level at a tournament that features more than 900 teams.

The 15 boys, all under the age of 15, were winners for the first time in their lives. They danced on the podium as gold medals were draped around their necks and sang songs as they were presented the trophy.

One thing stood out more than any to Stephanie Pereira, a manager for L’Athletique d’Haiti — they all had smiles on their faces.

“To say it was happiness, it goes beyond that,” Pereira said. “For these kids to smile, it takes a lot.”

Josue and his teammates were able to just be kids for a few weeks and forget about the devastation at home. They arrived in the Twin Cities on July 9 and will start heading home next week to Port-au-Prince. Families here opened their homes, swimming pools and refrigerators to a group of kids who, even before the earthquake, had spent their lives struggling.

“It’s only been four days and we’re already crying tears that they have to leave soon,” said Karen Anderson, a host mother.

Josue and his teammates do not speak English, but smiles are smiles in any language. Speaking of his time in Minnesota, he spoke through a huge, toothy grin.

“They treat me very well and make me very happy,” he said through a translator.

An estimated 1.6 million Port-au-Prince residents remain homeless or living in tarps and tents. Most have no electricity or running water and the rebuilding effort has barely started.

In Minnesota, these kids got a taste of middle class living, PlayStation, air conditioning and Josue’s new favorite food.

“Hot dogs!” he said.

They were honored during an Olympic-style opening ceremony that included fireworks and sky divers, cheered wildly by more than 1,000 people.

“Here people were rooting for them and they were like, ‘What’s wrong with them?’” Pereira said. “I told them, ‘They’re happy for you! You have to smile too.’

It didn’t take them long to get the message.

“They are very loving,” Anderson said. “They put their arms around you and we walk together and say je t’aime. I love you. Every day I try to have them teach me some new words. Explain what we’re eating.”

After the earthquake, the boys recalled eating maybe once a day, rice and beans at L’Athletique d’Haiti, a sports program based in Port-au-Prince aimed at getting children from the poorest areas of town off the streets. Here, they got pizza, spaghetti, hot dogs and Pop Tarts, major food groups for most American teenage boys.

“It’s unbelievable how much they eat and what they eat,” said John Schinnick, a local youth soccer coach and host. “They’ll grab eight slices of bread and pile it up. Pizza, bread on that and rice on that and ketchup over everything.”

Eventually, Schinnick said, “they laid off piling it so high because they realized it was going to keep coming. They could eat four or five times a day if they wanted.”

Remarkably, or perhaps frighteningly, life in Haiti seems back to “normal” for one many of the 14-year-olds who have grown up in one of the world’s poorest nations.

“It wasn’t too hard,” goalkeeper Anel Pierre Jr. said of putting the earthquake behind him. “I tried to find a way to take the stress out and soccer was one of the ways to do that.”

L’Athletique d’Haiti has received help from the Galaxy, the Sanneh Foundation and other organizations to outfit more than 600 kids with soccer equipment and give them something to fill their day, and a meal to fill their stomachs.

“That’s one of the things we wanted, to start playing again right away,” Pereira said. “When you’re playing, you concentrate on the game, you don’t concentrate on the problems necessarily.

“It helped the kids refocus again. It was their routine. It helped them go back to what they were used to, which is an important thing.”

Now that the tournament is over, the kids will spend the rest of their time here at lake beaches and an amusement park. Pereira said very few are ready to go home even though they have been away from their families for more than two weeks.

In her eyes, that’s not a bad thing.

“Socially, it’s a very good experience,” she said. “They’ve never traveled. They’ve never seen what else is around them. It helps them open their vision, their minds, to seeing other things and how life can be different.”

will not be displayed