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8410: Bobby Duval's soccer program helps spread hope in Haiti (fwd)
Bobby Duval's soccer program helps spread hope in Haiti
By Tim Collie
Sun Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted June 20 2001
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- By any measure, Bobby Duval has more than paid his
dues as a social activist. Nearing 50, he might be forgiven for kicking back
and enjoying life.
He has been imprisoned, starved and tortured in Haiti's notorious Fort
Dimanche prison. He saw hundreds of fellow activists die during a stint there
opposing the dictatorship of the Duvalier family. Many were beaten to death
in front of him.
He's a former soccer star, affluent, American-educated and speaks French and
English. A son of Creole elites, he might be just as at home shopping in
Paris, or coaching at one of his old haunts in Boston or Montreal.
Yet here he is on a hot Saturday morning, on a dusty playing field,
surrounded by hundreds of poor children, teaching them skills their families
cannot afford, raising hopes they're not supposed to have.
"There's no big deal, really," he says. "I just decided that this is my
country and I was going to do my best to make a change here. That's all."
That's not all to the 300 or so children who attend Athletics of Haiti, a
novel program that offers sports, food and education to children from the
vast slums of Port-au-Prince. Against odds every bit as formidable as the
struggle for democracy here, Duval has kept the program running for five
years of turmoil in Haiti.
Since 1996, he has run Athletics on a 15-acre compound near the capital
city's international airport and not far from Cité Soleil, one of Haiti's
most notorious urban slums. The children in the program are given medical
checkups, tutoring and, of course, plenty of coaching. They're given healthy
meals each week, and their parents are counseled on education and other
The immediate aim is to provide an escape for the athletic talent that might
be hidden in the country's vast shantytowns. Soccer is the national sport in
Haiti, but the country's deep poverty and class differences are formidable
barriers for even the most talented among the poor.
The best soccer clubs and schools are private and tend to cater to the small
middle class and elites. Basketball also is taking off here -- kids can be
found playing on many streets -- and Duval is expanding efforts to build
courts for boys and girls. Before he can turn his attention to athletic
skills, he must deal with nutrition.
"Right now, I need food -- I need to increase the quality of the kids' food,"
Duval said. "You can see [the children are] very small.
"They've already accumulated calorific deficiencies. I need to offer balanced
meals. I only give some carbohydrates and some meat now, some protein. But we
need to have iron, vegetables and stuff.
"That takes money, and that takes organization."
The scion of a prominent Haitian automotive family and a former soccer star
who led Montreal's Loyola University to a championship in the early 1970s,
Duval returned to his country after graduation and became a leading opponent
of the Duvalier dictatorship. At one point, he served a 17-month sentence in
Fort Dimanche but emerged even more invigorated and authored a book on the
By 1996, though, Duval found himself tiring of the seemingly endless debate
over the nature of Haitian democracy and wanted to devote himself to
something more "concrete." Using his family connections, he persuaded the
owners of the compound to let him open a sports camp.
The idea would be not only to help the poor, but also to bridge the chasm
between the impoverished and the tiny upper classes. This would be done by
having children play together, and play well, on competing teams.
Children having supportive parents is the only requirement. Each child is
given a physical examination, tutoring and educational support, a luxury in a
country in which only half the population makes it past the fifth grade.
Despite some support from the United States, the vast majority of the
equipment, energy and money that pays for the organization's $15,000 monthly
budget comes from friends and businesses within Haiti.
The only drawback is that the club must be somewhat selective, taking only as
many children as it can afford on a largely first-come, first-serve basis.
Otherwise, it could not handle the demand -- half of the country's population
is younger than 20 and many of them live in the vast slums ringing
"We wouldn't have enough space. You'd probably see 1 million kids here
overnight," said Felix Biguesnel, 29, who has worked at the sports
organization since its inception. "We have to be restrictive."
The organization has sponsored two teenagers who traveled to Paris for
tryouts on soccer clubs. Biguesnel said Haiti's formidable class divisions
make it difficult for even the most talented youngsters to get the training
That's not evident to many of the youngest, who speak in awe of the sports
organization's seeming riches once they're inside the grounds. There are
clean basketball courts, lots of soccer balls and even a bin full of used
Wearing a tattered yellow City of Boca Raton T-shirt and a nervous grin,
Pierre Samson, 10, is listening to a coach explain how to dribble a soccer
It's his first day inside the compound, which he has observed at times
traveling from the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince. A friend has brought him
today, and Pierre is in the process of getting a medical exam and his first
meal there, a lunchtime treat of rice and juice.
"I want to be a sports star when I grow up, or maybe a [bus] driver," he
said, naming two of the more lucrative professions visible to many Haitian
youngsters. "It's a bit strange here, but I like it so far."
Despite his connections and reputation -- in addition to his political
activism, Duval was a star on Haiti's popular Violette soccer team -- he has
been attacked from all sides during the past four years. The poor parents of
the children he serves have been suspicious of a mulatto elite giving local
children food, medicine and education. The middle-class owners of private
schools and sports clubs resent having to play against his teams because of
the competition, Duval said, and even his reform-minded rich friends wonder
why he's spending so much money on poor kids.
"Any day I can be thrown out," Duval said. "I went to the owners and asked if
I can use this land. They said yes, go ahead. But they want to maintain the
option to sell at any time. There's a lot of money being spent here, but
these are the basic things I need to operate.
"What I hope is that the owners will have a change of heart one day, that
they will come and say, man, it's kind of crazy, but let him do his thing."
He sees this as a logical extension of his work as a political activist, when
the struggle was for self-determination. Older now, and the father of a
teenage son, he's more interested in what he calls "the concrete, not the
"For 20 years, being an advocate of human rights ... I wanted to do something
that I could [put] my hands on, really," Duval said.
"When you're an advocate, it does have an effect. Had we not done what we did
... to advance the social movement, I probably couldn't have the political
space now, this real space, to do what I'm doing today."
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