Organizing a basketball camp at a time when COVID-19 has forced the suspension of so many sporting activities across the globe was no easy feat.
In early October however, players from across Niger and ten migrants hosted at IOM’s transit centers, aged 13 to 19, took on the challenge and participated in this year’s edition of Hoops4Kids, in Niamey.
In 1993, Yacouba Sangaré was playing for Niger’s national basketball team, which gave him the opportunity to relocate to the Unites States. From his new home, he founded the non-profit organization Hoops4Kids as a means of giving back to his community. Hoops4Kids has since sought to provide at-risk youth the opportunity to develop their athletic and life skills through its basketball programs in both the U.S. and Niger.
For safety reasons, this year’s participants underwent COVID-19 tests prior to joining the camp.
“And not one participant cried or squirmed, am I right?!” teases Mahamadou Assoumane Salifou (or “Oussou” as he’s better known), Hoops4Kids’ representative in Niger.
To reinforce the safety measures, the campers were hosted under one roof and were all provided with masks, hand sanitizer and access to handwashing stations.
In the past, many children were excluded from participating because they could not afford basketball shoes and the organizers lacked funds to purchase them. To provide a level playing field this year, every participant received a welcome kit comprised of a backpack, shoes, t-shirt, jersey, reusable water bottle and towel.
This came as a huge relief to the teens from IOM’s transit center.
“To be honest, I was worried I would have to play in flip-flops,” said 13-year-old Daniel*. “I now look and feel like a professional player. I even have a jersey with my name on it!”
Having their own equipment further motivated the children and encouraged them to continue their practice long after the camp ended.
As the youngest participant, Daniel quickly became the camp’s favorite. Daniel left Benin with his older brother when he was only ten, hoping to find work in Algeria. IOM staff met him in Assamaka, at Niger’s border with Algeria, just two months ago, as Daniel was trying to make his way back home alone. Ever since, he has been assisted at IOM’s transit center for unaccompanied migrant children in Niamey.
Throughout the week-long camp, the players attended classes on a variety of topics. The U.S. Ground Surgical Team (GST) provided classes on COVID-19 awareness and general health education while, in the lead up to World Mental Health Day on October 10, the team’s psychiatrist focused on the importance of staying active to help alleviate stress.
“Understanding that mental health professionals are not always available, I think our teams were able to provide valuable tips to the kids that they will be able to use wherever they go,” said Corey Melton, from the U.S. Military Information Support Team (MIST).
The group also attended workshops on basketball rules organized by LIBAREN, the Nigerien Basketball League, and FENIBASKET, the Nigerien Basketball Federation, to help the players better understand the game, encourage sportsmanship and minimize the inherent risk of injury. Coach Amadou Goukoye, who had the opportunity to study and train in the United States, organized a session on scholarships and recruitment.
Throughout the week, the youngsters also attended awareness-raising sessions on safe migration organized by IOM’s community outreach team and its community mobilizers (or “MobComs”) where they learned about the risks migrants face during their journeys and the assistance IOM provides.
Living under one roof for five days kept the campers safe from the virus, and gave them a space to get to know each other, watch movies, play games and dance. After attending a screening of a migration-related film, the migrants felt encouraged to open up about their journeys and struggles, which sparked a thought-provoking debate.
“I consider it my moral duty to inform other young people about the importance of education and the risks of irregular migration so they don’t need to go through the same troubles,” said 17-yead-old Rabiatou, from Benin.
“If you are lucky enough to study, you should grab it with both hands.”
Ferdjani, one of the participants from Niamey, was particularly moved by Rabiatou’s testimony.
“Having the migrants with us during the camp gave me more life experience because of what they have been through,” he said.
“People may think problems are only to be shared with family, but strangers sometimes become family.”
If the basketball games were a bit tense during the first day, by the end of the second day, the participants were already rooting for each other, regardless of which team was on the court.
Djibril Mamane, who has been a longtime Hoops4Kids participant turned coach, noticed a shift in dynamics and sportsmanship from Day One.
“Seeing how they act on the court, I think they became friends,” he said. “They were strangers, but you can’t feel that anymore.”
Every afternoon, the group was picked up from their living quarters and driven to the American International School of Niamey (AISN) for their basketball practice, learning to dribble, pass and shoot through 5-on-5 or 3-on-3 basketball games.
The coaches and MIST team were present each day to guide the campers and ensure their progress.
“You can tell the coaches are eager to teach and see you grow. On the court, they teach me whatever I ask them. At the house, I teach them different types of dance,” jokes Qudus, a migrant from Nigeria.
Eighteen-year-old Qudus never had the opportunity to play basketball before the camp. Four years ago, together with his 14-year-old cousin Fred*, he left Nigeria for Algeria, where they lived with an uncle who already struggled to feed his own children.
“I often felt like a burden, but I tried to do my part,” recalled Qudus.
Since they arrived in Niamey, Qudus has been staying at IOM’s transit center for adults while his cousin has been hosted at the transit center for unaccompanied migrant children.
“The camp gave me the opportunity to spend a week with Fred. After everything we have been through, I like to keep an eye on him.”
The camp ended with prizes, certificates and speeches, but above all, with heartfelt goodbyes, hugs and promises to keep in touch.
“During these difficult times, the fact that we succeeded in organizing this edition of Hoops4Kids in Niger, means the world to the kids. Right now, they need more than ever to have hope for the future,” said Yacouba, Hoops4Kids’ founder.
“Regardless of their background, these kids need to know that they are all capable of accomplishing their dreams. They won’t all become professional basketball players, but that’s not the goal anyway. This camp is about more than basketball.”
This year’s edition of Hoops4Kids was organized in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Niger and the support of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This story was written by Monica Chiriac, IOM’s Media and Communications Officer in Niger.