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#4655: Athletic d"Haiti soccer club (fwd)

From: Charles Arthur <charlesarthur@hotmail.com>

July 12, 2000
'Doing God's work' for the kids of Haiti
Robert Duval is making a difference with the poor children on
this Caribbean island

by Finbarr O'Reilly, National Post (Canada)

PORT-AU-PRINCE - On any given Saturday, you'll find Robert Duval
out on Haiti's best public soccer pitch, located on the fringes of Cité 
Soleil, one of the world's worst slums.

By nine in the morning, under an already harsh sun, he'll be
watching as about 300 dusty kids, streaked in sweat, guide soccer balls 
around the orange cones dotting three full-size soccer fields. Beyond the 
fields are two tarmac basketball courts and the faint outline of a planned 
running track.

The scene is one that Duval, an upper-class Haitian who helped
Montreal's Loyola College win a Canadian soccer title back in
the 1970s, has created almost single-handedly.

After graduating from Loyola (part of Concordia University since
1974) in 1976, Duval returned to Haiti, where he landed a brutal,
17-month prison term, some of it in solitary confinement, for opposing
the dictatorship of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier.

"Maybe 500 people died in front of me," says Duval, "some of
them summarily executed with clubs. Others starved."

During the following two decades of political turmoil, Duval
became an activist who outlasted numerous dictators, coups and military 
governments. Mostly, he worked to get other political prisoners out of jail. 
Then in 1996, the 46-year-old Duval felt the need to do something creative, 
something less political and more personal.

"I was tired of the political situation and wanted to show that
Haiti could create something," says Duval. "I wanted to show that you
can do positive things with Haitian kids. I'm sick and tired of people
dumping on Haiti."

Duval also wanted to spend more time with his teenage son, Guy
Robert, and while creating a soccer team for Guy, he discovered how many 
others wanted in. He held tryouts and 1,000 kids turned up.

It wasn't long before Duval had founded Athletics of Haiti, an
organization that now provides children from the slums of Cité
Soleil with training, food, medicine and schooling. The club, which
includes about 300 youths aged five to 20, has lockers, showers and
equipment -- facilities that many of the country's top teams don't have.

The club, which the children attend daily, costs about US$13,000
a month to run and Duval says he keeps the money coming in by pressuring his 
wealthy friends to open their wallets -- no easy task.

"Wealthy Haitians, they don't do charity -- they love their
money too much," said one man whose son is in the program. "Bobby Duval is 
the kind of guy Haitians need. He's the kind of bourgeois the people like."

Or as David Gonzalez, a New York Times writer who visited Haiti
recently and who profiled Duval for his paper, says: "Bobby's doing God's 
work, as far as I'm concerned."

Duval has had support from others outside the country. The NBA's
Mario Elie, a San Antonio Spur of Haitian descent, paid the club a
visit last year. And Duval recently sent an invitation to Montreal Olympic 
sprinter Bruny Surin, also of Haitian descent.

While many children and parents see the club as a way to make it
to the Haitian national team and also as a route to college
scholarships or professional teams outside Haiti, there's more to the 
program than sports. By encouraging youngsters from wealthier families to 
compete with those from the slums, Duval is also chipping away at the 
barriers that have long divided Haitian society. And, as Duval points out, 
"Some of these kids have a lot of talent, not only for soccer. Maybe it's 
school or music or writing poetry. But sports will help lift them to the 
next level of life."

Despite the benefits of Duval's program, there are those who
suspect him of having political motives. He says he doesn't.

"They wonder why I do this and ask why I don't just let them
play basketball on the street," says Duval. "They don't understand
what I'm doing here. I'm from the bourgeoisie, but unlike most
bourgeoisie, I have a responsibility to the common classes. I've had a 
series of instances where I've been close to them. If it wasn't for the 
people in prison, I would be dead."

And there's another problem: the four landowners who lent Duval
the scrap of industrial dumping ground that he has transformed into
15 acres of open green space have now expressed interest in building on the 

"They never want to give me any papers to sign and now they're
pressuring to reclaim the land," explains Duval. "I don't have
the resources to buy another piece of land and develop it again.
This is the kind of s--- they make me go through and I really hate them for 
that. But once I see the kids and I see an improvement, I know I'm doing 
something good. That's what keeps me going."
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