Building a Culture of Shalom through Soccer

Fr. Robert Ayiko has always loved football. Now he is using this love to help build inter-religious and inter-tribal harmony in Uganda's burgeoning refugee camps.

A Catholic priest based in the Diocese of Arua in northwestern Uganda, Fr. Robert played soccer throughout his seminary studies and later started Ediofe Hills F.C., Arua town's first Ugandan premiership team. After being assigned to the Catholic parish in Yumbe in 2016, he initiated a new soccer outreach program in nearby Bidi-Bidi refugee camp. Numbering over 230,000 people, most of them hailing from neighboring South Sudan, Bidi-Bidi is the biggest refugee camp in Uganda and one of the largest in all of East Africa. Significantly, two-thirds of Bidi-Bidi's refugees are under the age of 35. (Unlike the USA in recent years, Uganda has been incredibly hospitable to refugees. Currently over 1.3 million reside in the country, making it the 2nd-largest refugee host country in the world.)

Fr. Robert's youth soccer program has several key goals, including promoting peace, creating unity, offering positive recreation, and reducing the stigmatization associated with refugee life. He also works with the local Muslim imam and Anglican leaders to integrate teams across religious lines. This inter-religious collaboration is important in light of the shifting demographics of the region. Whereas 90% of Yumbe's local population is Muslim, a similar percentage of the Sudanese refugees are Christian. Toward this end, players do not wear their names on their jerseys but rather mottoes such as "that they may be one," a text drawing on Jesus' command in John 17:21, and the Qur'anic verse 49:13 ("O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another"). In addition, team names such as "Peace Club," "Hope Club," and "United Stars" are designed to reinforce the mission of the league. "Through sport we can escape from the problems at home," says Sudanese refugee and women's volleyball coach Winnie Kiden. "This helps us create peace among ourselves."

In just over two years, Fr. Robert's refugee sports apostolate has grown to encompass over 1,000 participants and thousands more spectators. Individual testimonies highlight the program's impact on community-building. For soccer coach Peter Tasile, football has built relationships across multiple lines of potential conflict. "When you play a match with someone, you know that person is your friend." For his part, referee Hakim Thomas Alex attributes the lack of fighting to the practice of joint prayers before the game and the fact that players "know each other by name." The program has enabled Christian and Muslim families to build on their children's friendships and even enter each other's homes. "We just want to build peace and stay together," says local Muslim and tournament coordinator Africa Ratib Alahai. "We are all brothers and sisters!"