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Gololcha Boru, Winnipeg, Manitoba
When new immigrant families arrive in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Gololcha Boru is sometimes one of the first new faces they meet. His story as a community leader, especially within the local soccer scene, depicts the unification sport can have on not only an individual, but an entire community.
After arriving in Canada as a political refugee from Ethiopia when he was one year old, Boru grew up to call the Great Plains his home and normal past times included meeting friends on the soccer field or basketball court.
However, his initial relationship with sports was halted prematurely. By his early teens, Boru dropped out of sports altogether due to the limitations many immigrants face when it comes to accessing sport such as rising costs and transportation issues.
That would eventually change after he decided to pursue a career in community outreach. While working with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) to support government-assisted refugees settle in Canada, Boru was led back to sports.
Through education, art, community outreach support and sport and recreation, especially soccer, IRCOM is “focused on providing as many pathways to prosperity for our children and youth,” he explained.
“I was re-exposed to a lot of the barriers that led to me leaving sport,” said Boru. “We kind of became a champion in advocating for the rights of newcomer youth and other marginalized groups, Indigenous groups as well, when it comes to the barriers that we face accessing safe, quality sport in Winnipeg.”
Alongside organizing a group of six or seven teams to join the Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association, an integral part of IRCOM’s “quite unique” program is the weekly drop-in option. Between 50-100 kids gather at the University of Winnipeg’s Axworthy Health & RecPlex to play soccer – even if it is only their second day in Canada.
“It’s a space where we integrate the newcomers, the real, real new ones, who have arrived in Canada on Thursday, they usually would come down on a Friday,” explained Boru.
“It’s a great space where we also bring in volunteers from across the city, they come in and they not only are playing with the youth, but they’re also coaching the youth. It’s a real vibrant sense of community when those Friday nights are happening.
After returning to a sport environment, Boru eventually undertook a role in coaching – something he never previously considered. Eight years later and he hasn’t looked back, often opting to play games with the program’s U-18 and U-16 teams over an adult recreational league.
“[Soccer] is a love of mine. I love to watch, to play, and a new thing I’ve experienced is to coach and to see the growth in the players … [Creating] some sort of joy, untapping some potential not only as a player but as a human.
“The little moments, driving to a game, or driving after a game and talking to them and getting to know them, listening to their stories, finding out their dreams, passions and ways to assist them in some way in achieving those goals.
“The game really comes secondary. It’s building the trust and building the relationship with these young people … that’s the best part. Creating those moments of things that they will remember for forever and having those positive experiences.”
Despite dropping sport altogether as a teenager, having the opportunity to help local children and youth who are experiencing the same challenges he did 20 years earlier brings things full circle for Boru.
“I’m very lucky to be in the position that I am right now in to give back to my community,” he said. “I think the majority of Canadians don’t understand the reality on the ground when it comes to access to sport and what sport can play in someone’s life.
“I know firsthand, I’ve lost many friends and I’ve seen many young people within my [positions] who experience some of the negative aspects of sport and the barriers to sport. And unfortunately, they’re not with us right now.
“For a lot of us it comes from a space of, if our young people are not playing sport, we might not see them again because of the other factors that are at play due to housing, due to poverty, due to economic situation. [Or] to family households, trauma, mental issues, there are so many factors.”
Looking towards the future, Boru’s next aim is to continue breaking down additional barriers in sport such as racism, something he admits has unfortunately been an experience for those within the program.
“The path hasn’t been easy in terms of bringing newcomer teams [in]. We are a team of fully Sub-Saharan African, Arab, Southeast Asian youth and it’s a complete team that doesn’t look like any other team in the league,” he said.
“The players and coaches have experienced a lot of hurtful and very negative experiences and the tides of change are coming but I think it’s important to note that this journey has not been easy at all. We’ve had many hurdles from that and a lot of them come from blatant racism and discrimination, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.”
These experiences in turn, “planted the seed” for the Anti-Racism in Sport Campaign launched this past April, another project he is working on. He hopes the advocacy work can change the soccer landscape not only in Winnipeg but across the entire Canadian soccer scene.
“We’re trying to break down these barriers that highlight the need for more welcoming and safe sport for all communities, not only newcomers but for Indigenous [communities].”
“I hope I’m doing a great job for those who are not only with us right now but also for the next generation so there can be some impact and legacy, so we don’t have to have that situation happen again.”
Tammy MacSweyn, Glengarry County, Ontario
A player for 37 years, a referee for 30 and a coach for 15, soccer has always been a staple in Tammy MacSweyn’s life. With virtually a lifetime as a community leader in the Glengarry County area, MacSweyn’s resumé testifies to her vast impact on those within the local area.
But having a life-long connection to soccer is not an unusual story for MacSweyn. Given the almost 100-year-old history of the Glengarry Soccer League (GSL), the organization has a strong connection to her family.
“As a family, we’ve been involved in it for as long as I’ve known, and as long as I can remember,” said MacSweyn. “[For] everyone local, there are lots of people tied to the GSL.”
“Back in the glory days, soccer championships, the playoff finals, they would have 500-600 people on the sidelines watching these soccer games. All these things bring our community together.”
Her grandparents, mother, father and brother, plus aunts, uncles and cousins were all involved with the organization at some point – many of which she humbly mentioned were top scorers and MVP award winners. MacSweyn herself started playing at five years old.
Having a long-time association with the league, she has an extreme familiarity with recognizing the benefits of organized sports.
Once it was time to hang up her cleats, however, MacSweyn did not put soccer behind her. Instead, she moved up in the ranks and acted as an area representative for 15 years before moving on to her current role as league vice president which she has held for the past six. All in addition to her time coaching, refereeing, helping with a local senior hockey team, acting as a director for the Glengarry Highland Games and her full-time job as a grade 7/8 teacher at Glengarry District High School.
Yet regardless of how much is on her plate, MacSweyn remains up to the challenge. “How do I balance it?”, she laughs. “It’s a lot of juggling.”
“I try to fill the need if there’s something that we are looking for in the area.”
And she has been seemingly undertaking every role with ease. For her, the highlight of helping local youth get involved in sport is presenting young athletes with a surplus of opportunities.
“It’s big for the community, it’s big for the development of social skills and friendships. These friendships will last a lifetime just from playing soccer and friendships from rivalries that stand the test of time. It’s good for the community, it gets people involved,” she said.
Her dedication to help young athletes thrive continued to flourish even in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. When push came to shove, MacSweyn once again found herself stepping up in the community.
As a result of the two-year hiatus, the GSL experienced a shortage of referees yet when it came time for kickoff, the league’s vice president did not hesitate to grab her whistle and officiate. And her efforts still didn’t stop there.
“I spent half of my game refereeing, but also at the same time, I was spending the rest of my time trying to coach these kids,” said MacSweyn. “So, I was coaching them trying to teach them positions, trying to teach them how to do throw-ins properly, where to put the ball on a corner kick and stuff.”
“I was focusing to try and help that team and help develop their confidence.”
Her willingness to go the extra mile did not go unnoticed. Spectators, parents and grandparents on the sidelines shared their appreciation afterwards. It is an assumed feeling many have shared throughout MacSweyn’s tenure in the soccer community regardless of what role she held which she found “flattering.” Her influence has undeniably impacted countless lives over the years.
“I feel like I’ve impacted several people having coached for more than 15 years … a lot of those kids developed into phenomenal soccer players and then they played with me,” she said. “It’s nice to keep tabs on them and see their progress and then see their children who are now coming up.”
Still, the prominent community leader, who acts as an integral gear within the GSL’s system, insists she cannot take all the credit. She emphasizes every member with a role in the Glengarry soccer community, no matter how small, remains a crucial part to the league’s success.
“The GSL isn’t what it is without the whole group and many, many volunteers. The volunteers are really what make the GSL be able to do, and offer, what we can offer to the community. Without their support, there is no soccer.”
Despite having an impact on the community for almost a generation, MacSweyn admitted she is not considering leaving the scene just yet. In fact, more community members are already asking her about taking on future roles.
“Wherever I go, I’m tied into soccer somewhere … I can never get away from soccer. It follows me everywhere I go,” she said laughingly.
“I do [what I do] because there is a need for it, as opposed to ‘Look at me I’m doing something for soccer.’ [That’s] not my purpose, it is to help out and get the game going and keep the game going.”
Jean Claude Munyezamu, Calgary, Alberta
With a knack for identifying issues and taking immediate action to implement change, Jean Claude Munyezamu’s influence on Calgary, Alberta, is making waves in the community.
After living in different refugee camps, Munyezamu immigrated from Rwanda in 1998 and brought with him an understanding of the various values of playing sports after organizing soccer games in the camps. Eventually, he would do the same thing in Canada but on a much larger scale.
Implementing change in his local community started back in 2010. Munyezamu saw a need for transformation in his neighbourhood, specifically at a local park home to some alarming activities. After recognizing the problem, he intended to turn the park into a place for kids to come together to play the world’s game.
“During the day, the local park was not safe in the neighbourhood,” he explained. “The kids were meeting in this park and doing what kids do when they have nothing to do. Shoplifting in the local stores, learning to smoke marijuana, drug dealers would come basically to recruit kids there.
“The families were scared of this park … I couldn’t push kids on the swing.
“When I tried to talk to their families and ask ‘What can we do?’, they said ‘Oh, no, it’s been this way for many years, you can’t do anything’ [but] I said ‘No, we should do something.’ ”
Powered by persistence, Munyezamu gathered a group of 25 kids, grabbed a ball and started organizing what would eventually become Soccer Without Boundaries. Word spread like wildfire and within two weeks, roughly 75 kids were in attendance. As of today, the program has assisted upwards of 650 participants.
Over time, players were introduced to local competitive leagues allowing for what Munyezamu calls “socio-economic integration.” Children from various backgrounds, incomes and life experiences became not only teammates but friends, thanks to the union.
“It’s amazing to see how the child who just come to Canada, they can’t speak English, when they come and join the team they play soccer, they score goals, you can see high fives. You can see the teammate rather than seeing ‘them and us,’” he said.
“Soccer is something where the rich child and the poor child meet and do something they love.”
But his influence did not stop there. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, his community outreach expanded beyond organized sports. Soccer Without Boundaries amalgamated to become Umoja Community Mosaic which now focuses on providing numerous services for those in need.
“All social agencies closed so I found myself answering to the parents of those children who are in our program because we were the only connection they had, we had to improvise,” explained Munyezamu.
“During the pandemic, those who don’t speak English they have no computer, no Zoom. So, we went looking for them to see who needed prescription medicine. We went to pick it up for them. Who needed food? We brought food for them.”
Within 48 hours of recognizing the issue, he set up a food bank and community programs for women and seniors alongside the already ongoing tutoring program. The homework assistance, in particular, made a big impact. Children “who could not recognize their names when they wrote it down” were shocking local elementary school teachers with their development, according to Munyezamu.
Yet even with the support of multiple employees and volunteers, individual determination remains a powerful force. His ‘nobody gets left behind’ mentality partnered with a drive to continuously go the extra mile to help those in need is a large part of his character.
Whether it is handing out his phone number, chauffeuring a bus full of children to practice, introducing families to new cuisines, or hanging nets during the winter so children could play soccer any time of year, his effort has no limits.
“Children from across the street and kids from this public housing, they met in the park trying to shovel snow and get a little patch of grass [where] they can play soccer. That’s activating neighbourhood,” recalled Munyezamu.
“Soccer is an international language, you don’t need to speak English to be able to play soccer, you don’t need to be rich to be able to play soccer and this is what I’ve been screaming in our city.”
Using organized sport to stimulate community connections, see children reach their full potential and above all, leave an impact on young lives, inspire him to continue.
“This community work is very important because there is something called giving back. I believe every human being has something to contribute,” he said. “I’m very thankful that I was given this opportunity to do this. Serving people is a privilege.”
“My favourite part of what I do is seeing a child who is basically coming to me very small, very scared, and unsure, feeling that they are not good. And after six years I can see the kid is good at something … And that’s my favourite, when I see a child being transformed through soccer because of not [just] me, but everyone that they meet on the way.
“The culture of soccer is not created in a club; it is created in a community.”