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#1609 Social Laboratory on a Field
Social Laboratory on a Field
By DAVID GONZALEZ
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- In sports and in life, Robert Duval has always
fancied the left wing. As a soccer player, he thrived at the position,
helping to lead Loyola University in Montreal to a college championship.
when he returned to his native Haiti after graduating in 1976, his
to the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier earned him a brutal 17-month
prison term in solitary confinement.
In 1996, after 20 years of political activism during which he encountered
dictators, military governments and coups, Duval wondered what he had
accomplished. Despite presidential elections and talk of democracy, he
beginning to see his nation slip into a political stalemate that would
cripple it for the next few years. While his nation was undergoing this
political crisis, he too was experiencing a crisis, a more personal,
"Every person in this country has to find a way to express himself and
sense of his life," Duval said. "Many quit and say there is no hope. That
the response of the middle class and the upper class. That is not my way.
Where do we go from here?"
Back to the soccer field.
On a 15-acre lot where the only things that glistened were thousands of
shards of broken glass, Duval, who is 46, founded Athletics of Haiti, a
sports organization that takes youngsters from the slums of Citi Soleil
gives them training, food and tutoring.
Relying on a Candide-like optimism and contacts among the elite with whom
grew up, Duval has turned a patch of dirt on the outskirts of an
area into a rare sight here in Haiti's capital: a wide-open green space
lockers, showers and equipment usually unavailable even to the nation's
biggest athletic clubs.
Just as rare is that Duval is running a social laboratory, fielding teams
composed of rough-and-tumble ghetto children, who grew up kicking around
plastic bottles, and middle-class youths, whose parents see soccer as the
ticket to a college scholarship.
Duval sees soccer as more than a diversion. In a nation where class and
have long separated people, he wants to use sport as a way to bring
together and move them forward. Traditional politics, however earnest or
meaning, had its limits, he decided. But soccer, a Haitian passion if not
world-class pursuit, gives him a chance to see results among the 215
youngsters who come to the center each day.
"It's not really about sports," he said. "There are some kids you find
with a lot of talent, whether it be intellectual, poetry, music or
Sports will expose them to a higher level of life. I wanted to prove that
can do something positive with Haitian kids. I am sick and tired of
people dump on Haiti and say it has no hope."
As a former member of the Violette team, one of Haiti's most popular
teams, Duval had already learned a life lesson or two from his playing
During the most turbulent periods of political unrest in Haiti in the
late 1980's, acquaintances who remembered him from the sport would
warn him about impending attacks by supporters of the dictatorship.
"If I had not had that kind of past, I would be dead because of my
Duval said. "Sometimes I was protected by gunmen who were supposed to
me. He would know me from the team and say, 'Don't go there because I'm
supposed to kill you there.' That showed me how much soccer means to the
Duval, the son of an auto-parts industrialist, spent years at the
of a political struggle as an outspoken advocate for human rights. But he
grew introspective in the mid-1990's, slowly pulling away from politics
beginning to look for ways to spend more time with his teenage son, Guy
"I wanted my son to have a different experience," said Duval, who is
divorced. "I didn't want him to be raised behind walls, not like the
One day, while searching for a place where his son could play soccer,
stumbled across a dirty field filled with dozens of children from the
slums of Citi Soleil. The land had been unused since angry mobs sacked
few houses that stood there in the vengeful months after the Duvalier
collapsed in 1986.
"This was what I was looking for," he said. "I came here and took a group
kids and told them I wanted to do a team with them. I had tryouts and a
thousand kids came out. I had to choose 100. Can you imagine? I didn't
what I was getting into. I was just trying to do something for my son."
Soon, Duval was doting on a huge extended family, imparting lessons about
importance of school and sports. He reached an agreement with the owners
the land, who allowed him to use it for free. He began to call up old
-- some of the very elites he had scorned in previous years -- asking
for donations to help provide food, equipment and money for books and
Today, the three soccer fields are clean, thanks to a grounds crew that
weeks hunched over the dirt plucking out shards of glass. A wall
the children from running onto an adjacent road encloses part of the
clubhouse with lockers and showers has gone up.
A running track made from packed sand has begun to emerge in one corner,
which Duval plans to cover with rubber scraps from his father's tire
retreading factory. Several basketball courts have been built, using
backboards made from pallets and castoff steel.
"It's like a recycling operation down here," he said.
But given the social lines that have long divided Haiti, the task is
sometimes frustrating. People in the ghetto sometimes suspect that Duval,
with his privileged background, has an ulterior motive, using sport to
build his own political base.
He often has to remind the parents from Citi Soleil that they must
their children to study, using school and discipline as the passport to
sports. He is not there simply to provide free shoes and meals and let
children run free.
"He is not a man who treats people differently because of their color,"
Jeanel Dolvilas, who is 21 and has been playing at the field for several
years. "He really wants to help people."
Duval has encountered resistance from the middle class, which sometimes
cringes when he suggests that they send their children to play with
youngsters from Citi Soleil.
"I tell them they should come and give it a try," he said. "If you're
about your kid playing soccer in the future and getting a scholarship,
is the place to do it. This is where the talent is."
Not to mention where the controversy is. Duval said he had encountered
resistance from the managers of other teams, who he said resent his
In some tournaments, he said, his teams have been disqualified on
technicalities, while other teams go unpunished for more serious
For the second year in a row, one of his teams was eliminated, unfairly,
said, from moving up into a division that is better equipped and
"We take the money and do things with it," he said. "A lot of guys who
teams take the money and live off it. I'm opposed to that sector."
Duval knows he may sound naove. He takes no money for running the club,
though he works at it full time. He also knows he could lose it all
if the landowners demand their property or if he fails to come up with
financing and donations. He knows, too, that some people are willing to
out for him. Mario Elie, the San Antonio Spurs player who is of Haitian
descent, visited a few months ago to lend support.
Others also have, but in more streetwise ways. One evening, a
man from the slums came by to warn Duval about rumors that someone was
to disrupt a meeting with parents.
"If there are any problems, this is what I have to help you," the man
lifting his shirt to reveal a revolver tucked into his waistband.
Duval shrugged it off. Nothing unusual happened at the meeting, where he
spoke to 200 parents and children about the work he was doing at the
"There are people who say Haiti has nothing," he said. "I believe we have
some serious Haitians who can do their own development themselves. We can
The parents stayed long after it had grown dark. Duval lingered for a
chatting with them.
"What keeps me going?" he said. "Every day I come here and see the wall
still here, the house is not broken into and the guys are still working.
Every day that goes by is a victory for me."