The sun is hot, and a strong wind blows across the desert. The scorching rays have increased the temperature of the sandy ground, which is littered with sharp thorns from shrubs and twigs that have survived the drought in northern Niger.
These challenging conditions are no deterrent for barefooted 11-year-old Omar who, with his family, recently fled conflict in Mali.
Omar does not have the privilege of practising on a lush football pitch. Instead he kicks a deflated ball in a refugee camp set up to house children and their families. He practises football with his friends, determined to become an international star.
After arriving in Mangaize on the Niger/Mali border, Omar and his father, mother and two siblings were provided with basic items. World Vision’s role in the refugee camp is to provide items such as mosquito nets, buckets, water purification tablets and hygiene items such as soap to individuals. Water tanks, water taps and toilets have also been set up for communal use. Boreholes have been drilled, providing water for the 3,500 people residing at the camp. The boreholes were drilled between a local school and the refugee camp (the location chosen by the community) so it will benefit both refugees and school children.
For Omar, unlike many of his contemporaries in the ‘minority world’, there is no playing field, no academies to drill skills, nor coaches to monitor progress. Omar and his friends play on hungry stomachs as the monthly 15 kilograms of food received per household is quickly exhausted.
Their ‘houses’ are basic structures made from tarpaulin and twigs that topple over when it is windy, which is quite often.
Like many other children across Africa, Omar and his friends are crazy about football. Omar juggles the deflated black-and-white ball with artistry. He trains together with his five-year-old brother, Moumar and their 10-year-old friend, Risa. A lack of essentials and the hard living conditions have not dampened the young Malian refugees’ determination to excel.
Omar, Moumar and Risa are the face of the 14 million children who are forced to leave their homes due to conflict or fear of persecution. Children account for one third of the 42.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced. Of the 15 million people who have sought asylum in another country and apply for refugee status, almost half are children under the age of 18. Almost 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries such as Niger.
Omar proudly takes us to their ‘home’ where we find his mother Rabi and father Haruna. Omar’s father is lying on a mat on the ground. He is unwell but remains hospitable, sharing his family’s story. Haruna says they used to live happily at a place called Menaka, until rebels advanced while soldiers who were supposed to protect them fled. Omar’s father decided to flee with his family to Mangaize which is more peaceful, although he is quick to add that their biggest challenge is lack of food. He regrets his children cannot attend school. He is happy for them to play within the camp’s environs but does not allow them to venture further because of the experience of the conflict that has left him fearful of consequences.
On World Refugee Day, Omar will be in the camp, playing football, not venturing too far.
Omar provides a human face to the statistics of people who are forced to leave their homes for foreign places. A gorgeous smiling face despite what his young years have witnessed.
Donate to the West Africa Food Crisis Appeal or call 13 32 40. Consider sponsoring a child.
Sponsorship makes a difference. Children who live in communities where sponsorship is present have their nutritional status, height, weight and school attendance measured so that as soon as it looks like they are threatened World Vision can begin intervening, with donor support, to make sure children do not suffer the worst effects of the drought and food crisis.