Every month, 45,000 people are savagely murdered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many of those are young children as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world rages on in an ongoing battle over the Congo’s mineral wealth. The United Nations has called the civil war in eastern Congo the deadliest conflict since World War II.
Blaise Nkufo and Steve Zakuani were both born surrounded by that conflict and on Tuesday after the Sounders fell 2-1 to Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions League, they were introduced to a group of ten children who were also forced to flee the Congo.
The Congolese children were part of a local foster care program funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The State Department identifies refugee children overseas who are eligible for resettlement in the United States, but do not have an adult caregiver. These unaccompanied children – the most vulnerable refugees of all – are placed in foster homes where they receive an opportunity to live safely and grow into contributing members of their new communities.
This year, more unaccompanied refugee children have been resettled from the Congo than from any other country. The Congolese children cheering for the Sounders on Tuesday were resettled by the Seattle-based Refugee and Immigrant Children’s Program of Lutheran Community Services Northwest.
When Nkufo and Zakuani came on to the field at Qwest Field to greet the children after the game, their joy could be heard throughout the concourse, as they swarmed the players. They sought pictures with the star soccer players from their homeland, but mostly they sought conversation about getting out of the bad situation in Africa and excelling as students, athletes and humanitarians.
“When I read about Blaise joining the team, I thought ‘Oh my gosh!’” said Erika Berg, Community Outreach Coordinator for LCSNW. “He was a refugee himself and he loves academia and studying and all of the values that we really want to encourage in our kids. Now he’s on this successful soccer team and I thought he’d be a great role model. Having Steve also on the team makes it even better.”
At Tuesday’s game, the children watched the game from the stands, scanning the bench area for a glimpse of Nkufo or Zakuani. Unaware that a meeting had been arranged with the Sounders tandem, the kids were hoping just to catch a glimpse of them on the sidelines. After the match, Berg and the rest of the staff and foster parents on hand were escorted along with the children to the field.
Following a brief meeting with the team after the match, Nkufo and Zakuani – in street clothes after both sat out the match – came out to the field to meet their young Congolese fans.
As rewarding as the evening was for the Congolese children, Nkufo and Zakuani were also thrilled with the meeting. Nkufo left the Congo when he was seven and Zakuani left when he was four. He still has family in the central African country.
“When I see kids that come from that place, it can inspire you. They come from tough situations and they are happy and enjoying life. It reminds me that I came from that country and I still have people over there,” Zakuani said. “It’s humbling in the sense that we both were born there and came from there and these kids look up to us. It really took me back home. It was almost like seeing family after a long time. It was surreal to see that at Qwest Field.”
October 17-23 is Congo Week, a worldwide event conceived to increase awareness of the harrowing situation in eastern Congo. For more information, visit www.congoweek.org. For more on the program that brought the Congolese refugee children to Seattle and to Qwest Field to meet the Sounders, visit www.refugeechildren.net.