Malaki: From Chains to 2019 World Games

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From chained in a refugee camp to freedom on the playing field, Malaki is ready to show the world his talents and gifts.

The UNHCR’s Nyarugusu refugee camp in western Tanzania is one of the largest and most infamous refugee camps of the 21st century, with around 150,000 inhabitants. In Zone 2, you’ll find an unexpected sight. Among the dwellings and the red dust, is a team playing football. Children with and without intellectual disabilities are wearing colorful team bibs, training with cones and new soccer balls, and admiring their football field’s new goalposts. The formation of these Special Olympics Unified Sports teams was inspired by a young boy named Malaki…

Breaking the Chains - Unified Sports in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp

Breaking Chains

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Malaki was chained by his mother in their dwelling hut, with a padlock around his ankle. Without the resources to manage his disability, and completely isolated from supportive services, she chose a chain as a desperate form of social protection. Alone in the dark, he might have stayed this way for the rest of his natural life.

In May 2017, Special Olympics Board member and UNICEF representative Nils Kastberg made one of his trips to Tanzania’s Nyarugusu Refugee Camp. Religious leaders led him to meet Malaki, an 11 year old boy with intellectual disabilities. Kastberg persuaded his mother to unchain him and bring him into the light, explaining how with her love and the support of others, Malaki could develop, grow and interact freely with his community. Kastberg brought Malaki to the attention of Special Olympics International leadership, who on hearing of Malaki’s treatment and circumstances, quickly sprang into action.

Special Olympics Tanzania and Unified Sports

Moved by this story and its urgency, Special Olympics Tanzania’s National Director Charles Rays and his team travelled out to Kigoma, the nearest town, and from there to Nyaragusu Refugee Camp. With support from Special Olympics global partner Lions Clubs International, Special Olympics Tanzania visited the camp on 20 June, 2017 to meet the same religious leaders who were so important in this rescue process. With introductions from Kastberg, they assisted the meeting between Malaki and his mother.

Special Olympics Tanzania’s first task was to release Malaki from bondage. Following a discussion with Malaki’s mother, she agreed to hand over the Malaki’s chain and padlock to Special Olympics Tanzania. The team initiated an education process of Malaki’s mother to understand that Malaki, like any other human, had the right to enjoy freedom, and that there were other better options to help Malaki. Special Olympics Tanzania had brought along sports equipment on this first visit. The team performed some demonstrations to display to Malaki’s mother that sports was the solution.

As part of changing her mind and attitude about the treatment of her son, Rays had brought with him a soccer ball and football uniform. After asking Malaki to dress in the football uniform, he gave him a one-on-one coaching session. Being taken outside, given a ball and the opportunity to play with it… although all this was strange to Malaki, he could not help but smile. His mother said she was shocked to see Malaki smile, which is something she had never seen before.

Despite his lack of practice and play that other children might have already enjoyed by his age, Rays was impressed that Malaki immediately displayed good football and ball handling skills. The Special Olympics Tanzania team returned to Dar es Salaam, the capital city of Tanzania, with Malaki’s chain and shipped it to the office of Special Olympics Chairman Dr. Tim Shriver in Washington, DC.

Lions Club International, Bringing Hope

In order to have Malaki liberated for life, a number of support activities were organized. The first was to empower the local religious leaders and individuals with Special Olympics coaching skills. With support from Lions Club International, Special Olympics Tanzania returned to Kigoma to conduct coaching skills training to 30 of these leaders, from 17–21 July 2017. The first set of equipment donated to the camp arrived on 30 September, 2017. This equipment included football goal posts, footballs, bibs, training cones, football competition uniform and whistles. This brought so much excitement to the camp as the refugees, with and without intellectual disabilities, could finally train and compete. The refugee camp fields have been extremely busy with sports activities since then. The religious leaders made contact with Special Olympics Tanzania and requested for training of family members of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. They reported that because of the high prevalence of intellectual disabilities in the camp, several family members were interested in receiving training to get to know more about Special Olympics and get involved in adding value to the lives of their children.

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On 28 October 2017, Special Olympics Tanzania returned to the Nyarugusu refugee camp to donate additional equipment because of the growing interest in Special Olympics. that same day, a Family Health Forum training was conducted along with a local Unified football and track and field competition in the camp. 80 refugees with and without intellectual disabilities competed in a Unified Sports environment. So far, 51 family members have been trained and 253 individuals with intellectual disabilities have been recruited as Special Olympics athletes in Zone 2 of Nyarugusu refugee camp.

Nyarugusu Refugee Camp Takes Gold at Special Olympics Tanzania National Games

Special Olympics Tanzania, like all other Special Olympics Programs in the Africa Region, have been preparing to select and advance athletes to participate in the 2019 World Summer Games, to be held in Abu Dhabi. Special Olympics Tanzania had planned the games to take place on their neighboring island of Zanzibar, but on hearing that the athletes from Kigoma would not be able to travel there due to their refugee status, plans had to change. Special Olympics Tanzania did not give up, and moved the Games to take place in Dar es Salaam, on 3–5 January 2018. They were held at the National and Uhuru Stadium in Dar es Salaam.

‘Uhuru’ means ‘freedom’ in Swahili, and the stadium provided the perfect setting for Malaki and his teammates to leave the shadows of the camp and play freely with their peers. Malaki and his friends and fellow athletes from the camp traveled more than 1,000 km over two days to make the journey. For all of them, this was the first trip they had taken from the camp. Even though their bus broke down on the way, the Games waited one more day to have the athletes present and participate in their athletics and football events. These Games had 150 athletes, 30 coaches and a host of volunteers, hailing from Kigoma (Nyarugusu Refugee Camp), Ilala, Temeke and Kinondoni.

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The Lions Club Dar es Salaam District was there in force, as well as representatives from the Tanzanian government. There was also a Healthy Athletes screening under the Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes partnership, testing athletes’ vision. This was the first health screening the athletes from the refugee camp had ever had. Malaki, Special Olympics Tanzania athlete for 2019 World Games Nyarugusu’s team took gold in the results over Ilala and Temeke in the Unified 11-a-Side Football event. In addition, Malaki was selected to represent Special Olympics Tanzania in the 100m and 200m event for athletes at World Games 2019! He is among 5 athletes from the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp selected in the advancement games.

Today, training has continued to be held in the Nyarugusu refugee camp and Special Olympics Tanzania will be back to provide additional support to the refugees. The camp has 8 Zones, and Special Olympics Tanzania has reached the people and children with intellectual disabilities in Zone 2 only. Expansion to other zones is a Special Olympics Tanzania priority in 2018.

Every day, hundreds of refugees just like Malaki seek shelter in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp. At 11 years old, young Malaki, whose family originally fled from civil war in Burundi, has already traveled very far. And now, freed from his shackles and included in his community, his new journey can begin. Who knows how many children like him are in these camps, waiting for their chains to be broken through the power of sport.