Aug. 12 is International Youth Day, and this year’s theme is “Building a Better World by Partnering with Youth.” As an intern with USAID’s Outreach Program in Ethiopia, I recently spent a week working with 560 young people between ages 13 and 20 doing just that. I helped the U.S. Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Team run a weeklong soccer camp co-sponsored by Sports United and featuring two sports envoys from Major League Soccer: Tony Sanneh and Kate Markgraf.
The State Department’s sports diplomacy program sends American athletes around the world to transcend differences by engaging people with a shared passion for a sport. Forty-four percent of Ethiopia’s population is under the age of 15, so youth development is an integral part of Ethiopia’s development. When asked why he does sports diplomacy, Sanneh, a retired Los Angeles Galaxy player, said, “If kids can learn to stand in line, learn the rules of the game, it translates to the classroom and society.”
Growing up in the United States, I went to summer camp with that American notion of “roughing it.” At this camp however, the participants, coaches and volunteers came from Harar, Dire Dawa and Jijiga, areas of eastern Ethiopia that are susceptible to ethnic and religious tensions. Three hundred and fifty campers were Muslim, and 210 were Christian.
As world attention turns to the London 2012 Summer Olympics, Ethiopian girls were coached and inspired on a daily basis by Markgraf, a three-time Olympian with two gold medals and one silver. Markgraf remarked on her experience at the camp, saying, “The great thing about soccer is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, what gender you are, it brings us all together.”
After the soccer clinics, the Embassy’s cultural attaché, Jason Martin, and staff led daily discussions on social values, peer pressure, American history and good environmental practices. At night the kids would compete as much as they did on the field during the day, dancing to popular Ethiopian music.
On the last day, I asked a girl from Harar named Leyman Jirb Mume if she had had fun, and she said: “I am so happy that I was able to come to this camp and make friends from Jijiga and Dire Dawa. I would never have been able to do that without this program; it makes me so happy.”
For my part, I learned what “roughing it” really means. In addition to braving the scorching heat, many at this camp were very poor, but that didn’t dampen their enthusiastic participation: Some boys and girls even played in flip-flops or barefoot. Markgraf marveled at the level of excitement over soccer balls donated by USAID, saying: “I think my most memorable experience has been seeing the excitement of the kids when they come off the bus and they each have a soccer ball to play with. We take that for granted in the U.S., but [here] it is something to have an inflated ball that is brand new; that excitement is something I have never seen.”