'Friendship Games' bring Haitian and Dominican youth together
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (April 12, 2011) — Soccer is being used as a way to foster friendship and understanding between children in the neighboring countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
It is part of 'The Friendship Games', which also includes cross-border events in volleyball, basketball, judo, chess and other activities.
The UNICEF-supported event—organized by the Haitian and Dominican Olympic Committees—will take place this June in two cities on both sides of the border. During the games, fans will be allowed to travel freely between the two countries.
UNICEF adolescent consultant Gilbert Buteau says it's an opportunity for both sets of youth to realize they share many similarities and "can actually be friends and enjoy, pretty much, the same things."
"Even if there are some barriers, like the language," he says, "the love for some sports is pretty much the same on both sides of the border."
A big turnout
The games will involve as many as 500 young athletes. Everyone—spectators and athletes alike—will also be offered workshops in HIV/AIDS, child-protectionissues and health awareness, with particular emphasis on preventing the spread of cholera.
Mr. Buteau says he expects a big turnout, with up to 20,000 people attending to participate or watch. It is anticipated at least half of them will be under the age of 18.
Pierre Ernst, 11, has been playing soccer for the past five years. He's never travelled beyond Port-au-Prince, and is looking forward to representing his country.
"I'm excited to play with the Dominicans, to show what Haitians are capable of and to show the whole country how much we can accomplish," he says during a break between practice matches in a field on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
Mr. Buteau adds that given the sometimes tumultuous history between the two neighbors, 'The Friendship Games' offers a new approach.
"The idea is that there needs to be somehow an event bringing people together, especially the youth and the children," he says. "What better way than sport?"
Bridging the divide to protect children better
Even though Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island, language and formidable cultural barriers persist. 'The Friendship Games' have been designed with the aim of helping bridge that divide, says Ricardo Noelizaire of the Haitian Olympic Committee.
"What people should understand about 'The Friendship Games' is that it is a very small way to change the people's mentality," Mr. Noelizaire says.
It is hoped that improving relations through such methods will help the two countries better tackle shared problems such as child trafficking and the plight of 'restaveks'—children who are sent away to be domestic servants for host families.
"Dialogue sometimes is very difficult," Mr. Noelizaire adds. "But through the games, watching kids from the Haitian side and the Dominican side hug each other, help each other to stand up, understand each other, eat together—this is the future of this island."