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Forced to flee their homes due to conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they found themselves on foreign soil. However, with Soccer Without Borders (SWB), they found more than just shelter; they discovered a family that spoke the universal language of football.
“Four years ago when I joined Soccer Without Borders, most of the players did not know how to kick the ball but right now they are crying about losing the final,” remarked youth coach Fahaby Kitimbo as she picked up herself to console players of SWB Crocs after losing the final of the Grey Division against Titans 2-0 in the Kampala Girls League. Kitimbo currently coaches four girls’ teams and is a passionate advocate for the positive change that soccer can make in girls and women.
The Girls’ tournament, which is held every school term holiday was celebrating its eighth edition priding itself on bringing girls together to play football for three consecutive weeks.
Soccer Without Borders (SWB) has emerged as a beacon of hope for those who have experienced the horrors of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
According to the 2023 DRC Regional Refugee Response Plan, over one million refugees and asylum-seekers from the DRC are hosted in the Southern and Great Lakes regions, with Uganda alone receiving more than 93,800 new arrivals as of November 2022, most of whom are women and children. This dire humanitarian crisis is a result of a protracted history of conflict and violence, marked by forced displacement and grave human rights violations.
Taking a holistic approach, Soccer Without Borders Uganda offers daily programs for out-of-school youth, community activities during school holidays, and youth-led soccer leagues, providing essential support to urban refugee youth in Kampala.
Kitimbo emphasised that children arriving from the DRC often face language barriers that prevent them from enrolling in Ugandan schools. While the DRC boasts over 200 languages, French is the official language widely used in education and government. In contrast, formal schooling in Uganda is conducted in English, creating a significant hurdle for refugee youth.
To bridge this gap, SWB delivers a Literacy and Numeracy curriculum aligned with the Ugandan curriculum, helping youth attain grade-level education and potentially gain access to the formal education system. Certified instructors conduct daily classes at the Youth Centre five days a week.
The organization also runs the Wasichana Hub, which combines trauma-informed football practices, English language education, and life skills workshops, providing a safe and supportive environment for refugee girls throughout childhood and adolescence.
Wasichana offers year-round activities, including English instruction, soccer training led by female coaches, and girls-only workshops covering topics such as menstrual hygiene management, sexual health, HIV prevention, and vocational skills. These activities address gender inequality and empower girls to build confidence, find their voices, and develop leadership skills.
"We are fully aware of the daily challenges these girls face when they are not actively engaged. Our goal is to enable them to live life to the fullest," Kitimbo stressed.
A unique girls-only league
SWB organises the Uganda Youth Festival, Coaching Boys into Men alongside the famous Kampala Girls League.
Launched in 2019 with just six teams, the Kampala Girls League (KGL) is designed to advance gender equality on the soccer pitch. The recent edition of the league attracted 32 teams and had four divisions in total, two across the Purple Division for the beginners, one Grey Division for intermediate players, and a Gold Division for the most advanced. The league accommodates unlicensed refugees and local players from ages 12-18 years.
In Uganda, women’s and girls' football is still underdeveloped and largely only accessible through university and private schools; the Kampala Girls League was created to provide girls at the grassroots level a platform to play, compete, connect, have fun, promote fair play, and develop leadership skills.
During every school holiday, the KGL provides a safe and fun environment for more than 450 girls.
"We bring girls who are yet to be exposed to elite football to play together and this platform has continued to attract scouts. That impresses me a lot," Kitimbo said.
The KGL model is unique. Other than scoring goals and winning games, points are awarded to teams including those who are most punctual, those who acquire the most “fair play” points, best goal celebration, favourite opponent, and more. The teams crowned as divisional champions are decided by a combination of match points and fair-play points.
"The most important thing is that each and every participant within these teams grow their love for the game, make new friends, and strengthen skills toward fulfilling their potential," Kitimbo said.
Doreen Keita, the Makindye deputy Resident City Commissioner (RCC), who attended the eighth edition of the Kampala Girls League as the chief guest, praised the organization.
"Today is all about the girls and SWB offering them an opportunity to play and make new friends. It's even more special because we have participants of all age categories, including our sisters from DR Congo seeking refuge here. This embodies the spirit of Ubuntu our President [Yoweri Museveni] talks about," Keita remarked.
Founded 15 years ago, SWB is a crucial resource to urban refugee youth in Kampala.
According to Jules Mayele, the acting director of SWB, the organisation does not only develop soccer skills but also cultivates essential life skills. Under the guidance of the coaches and mentors, the children learn teamwork, leadership, and discipline, qualities that extend far beyond the soccer field.
Mayele, a refugee from South Kivu in the DRC, is an alumnus of the SWB Uganda Program. He has been on staff since 2014, where he has served as both a literacy instructor and coach.
"It is heartwarming to be part of the SWB family. It forms a supportive community, and for most of these children, it's like having a second family. The bonds formed here are incredibly strong," Mayele said.
Felicite Walongo, the captain of Orcas U16 team, expressed her single-minded focus on football and her aspiration to make it big in the sport. She admitted that she is still learning English but passionately loves playing football.
Walongo hopes that someday her home country will be safe for her to return to and that she can play football and represent the national team, believing that this could contribute to bringing peace to her homeland.
While SWB is a global organisation dedicated to providing underserved youth with the tools to overcome obstacles to growth, inclusion, and personal success, it faces financial challenges. In earlier editions, the organisation could provide meals for all participating teams, but after the COVID-19 pandemic, everything changed.
"Now, teams have to take care of their logistics, such as transportation and meals, although they continue to participate in the tournament free of charge," Mayele explained.
The team engages with the UNHCR in hopes of receiving assistance, though substantial support has not materialised.
“Now teams have to take care of their logistics such as transport and feeding although they continue to participate free of charge in the tournament,” he added.
The team engages with the UNHCR for possible assistance although nothing substantial has come through.
The impact of Soccer Without Borders is evident in the lives of the children it serves.
Elder players assume roles in the Youth Council, managing and officiating at the Kampala Girls League and providing leadership when needed. The Youth Council includes 10 SWB Uganda participants, six of whom are certified youth referees recognized by the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA).
"This elevates the young boys to become ambassadors of hope, inspiring others to believe in the power of dreams," Kitimbo concluded."
Mayele Jules on the impact of the league
I have seen and experienced the growth and impact of KGL and I am excited for what the future may hold. Providing this platform for young girls in a safe, organized, and fun environment in every school holiday regardless of their football skill levels is an ultimate goal that excites me a lot as it contributes to our Global Goal 5 vision to advance equity through football and also building community as both refugee and nationals can connect through the game, aim to build lasting friendships. And more so, this keeps the girls in the game, with the different divisions we have at KGL, they can imagine their growth pipelines and those that have advanced inspire our young ones to join the game which is an amazing opportunity to advance gender equity on the pitch, on the sidelines with female coaches and in our communities.