Volkswagen Canada and the Canadian Premier League embarked on a nationwide search to find Change Makers in our communities. We searched for stories about unsung heroes in local soccer communities, those who are going above and beyond to drive inclusivity, accessibility and change for the better. Change Makers are leaders, on and off the field. We are happy to present our 2021 Volkswagen Canada Community Change Maker!
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.”
Click here to read about the other nominees for the Volkswagen Community Change Maker Award.