Tibetan women's soccer team set to make international debut in Vancouver
After being denied tourist visas to attend a tournament in Dallas, the team of exiles are now coming to Canada
What seemed like a devastating setback has turned into a wonderful opportunity for a Tibetan women's soccer team, and the USA's loss can now be counted as a gain for Vancouver.
Two months ago, 14 young players — all Tibetan refugees living in India or Nepal — were supposed to be in Texas, appearing as the special guests of the Dallas Cup, a prestigious international youth soccer tournament.
The women, age 16 to 20, were thrilled to get the invitation. But excitement quickly turned to disappointment when American embassy officials rejected their tourist visa applications, stating the team "had no strong reason to travel to the USA."
Against the backdrop of President Donald Trump's crusade to impose travel bans, the story gained international attention, fuelled by a heartfelt team video that went viral.
That's when Adri Hamael, founder of the Vancouver International Soccer Festival, stepped in.
"I was really angered by the story, " he said. "I mean how threatening are 14 Tibetan women to the United States? Then immediately my anger turned into a thought — I have to get this team to Canada."
On June 29, Hamael's vision will become reality when the women arrive in Vancouver, ready to represent as the first female Tibetan team to play internationally in any sport.
Soccer legend Andrea Neil has signed on to help coach, and on July 7, the historic match will take place at Empire Fields when Tibet faces a Canadian side.
Team Tibet founder Cassie Childers says the players "freaked out" when they learned Canada was welcoming their visit with open arms.
"They were elated. As hard as the day was when we were denied U.S. visas ... this is the happy ending to our story," she said.
Childers, an American with a playing and coaching background, began organizing soccer for exiled Tibetan girls a few years ago.
Tibet is considered a part of China following the 1951 invasion by the Chinese army and 1959 exile of the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama.
Sent to live alone in exile
Athletes often speak of overcoming obstacles but the concept of hardship takes on an entirely different meaning when you hear the Tibetan players' stories —starting with being sent to live alone in exile at age seven or eight.
"The human rights situation in Tibet is so bad that, typically, Tibetan families will send one child to India to live in the boarding schools that were started by the Dalai Lama to get a good education and have a chance to actually do something with their lives and fully express their Buddhism," she said.
"A lot of our girls don't have any contact with their families and they have no parental support. Some of their parents don't even know they play soccer."
According to Childers, life in Tibetan-exile communities is hard for girls and women, especially those who dare play soccer.
"It's still extremely conservative and extremely sexist. Men in their own community are still actively trying to get them to stop playing," she said.
A video of the players chanting "Van-cou-ver" gives just a taste of their excitement. Childers says, quite simply, Vancouver is going to "blow their minds."
"They've never been anywhere besides Tibet, Nepal and India. To be honest, I don't think they have any concept of what they're about to experience."
Hamael and Childers know there's bound to be a political focus on Team Tibet when it arrives in Vancouver, but both agree the most important part of the story transcends politics.
"My only agenda is to bring people together to play football and understand each other better through the beautiful game," said Hamael.
"We are not political, but just because we wear the Tibetan flag on our jersey, by default, it becomes political," said Childers.
"We just keep playing football and telling each other's stories. Nobody can stop us really."