For more than 22 years, northern Uganda has been a war zone that has displaced more than 1.7 million people. Against the backdrop of the clash between the Lord's Resistance Army and troops from Uganda and neighbouring countries, children have been forced to become sex slaves or soldiers.
Others have been lured away by unscrupulous agents who promise to turn boys into professional soccer players, and then abandon them overseas after stealing their communities' money.
Canadian NBA star and Victoria native Steve Nash has co-founded a charity, Football for Good, that he hopes will help create a sense of optimism for Ugandan children caught in the mayhem. The charity plans to open a Centre for Sport and Rehabilitation in September 2009 in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu.
The centre will be "a safe place for war-affected children to have some arts programs, sports programs and opportunities for counselling," Jenny Miller, the executive director of the Steve Nash Foundation, recently told CBCSports.ca.
"The centre will offer the children a sense of normalcy and a sense of fun, but mainly hope that there's life beyond the conflict," she explained. "It's a way to see past the present and into the future and to focus on something besides the genocide."
Along with being named the Most Valuable Player in the NBA twice, the Phoenix Suns point guard is an avid fan of soccer (or football as it's known in most of the world). He initially organized a study in Gulu to decide on a program that the entire community could benefit from, and came up with Football for Good.
"For as long as I've been alive, it's been really difficult to find a connectivity between Africa and the rest of the world.… The one common element that we found that was really strong was football," Nash wrote on www.stevenash.org.
Hopes communities will fund centre instead of bogus agents
For years, boys who are talented at soccer in Gulu have been recruited by so-called agents that offer to bring them overseas to pursue careers. Typically, an agent will convince a boy's community to pool its money and promise the community will reap the benefits of his professional career. The agent then abandons the child overseas, pocketing the community's savings.
Nash hopes that, instead of continuing to fund these agents, communities will put their money into the sports centre, helping pay for children to use it.
"What if this money these recruiters took was put back into the community to develop other soccer players?" Miller questioned. "Football for Good can put money back into the communities for overall development.
"All the profits go back into the cause … in this case, a football academy that would also house arts, reconciliation, baseline health care and education for kids in the region," Nash said.
'A healthy and safe space'
Miller said the centre is intended to "build trusting relationships through activities that are just enjoyable, where a kid can feel happy and safe." After that, she said, meaningful reconciliation can take place.
"Not only does it provide a healthy and safe space for the children, but it could also lead to those counselling moments and significant healing that we're hoping for," Miller said.
Martin Nash, Steve's brother and a Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder, said the program would increase the confidence of the Ugandan children.
"It's an untapped resource: … underprivileged kids that don't have the resources or facilities to play," he said. He said that while he was playing soccer in Africa, he got first-hand glimpse of the "unfortunate" standard of life these children have. Although he's not yet involved with the charity, he said he hopes to be.
Charity co-founded with Athletes for Africa director
Nash founded the charity in collaboration with Adrian Bradbury, director of the Toronto-based Athletes for Africa. Athletes for Africa also created the GuluWalk in 2005, an annual walk meant to draw attention to the tens of thousands of children walk nearly 20 kilometres each night to avoid being abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army. GuluWalks have since taken place in more than 100 countries.
Although Football for Good is in its infancy, Miller said people around the world would care for the lives of the Ugandan children if they understood the challenges they faced.
"A kid anywhere deserves the same opportunities you and I have had," she explained.
"The chance to be a kid without worrying … the opportunities a kid in Vancouver had who is great at soccer, or a child in New York who has a beautiful singing voice."