“From Bujumbura to Rio de Janeiro, a great adventure for street kids”

More and more people are joining us on the Road to Rio. In this guest blog, US-based Team Burundi supporter John Manirakiza explains why he’s joined the movement for street children’s rights:

The plight of street children in Burundi

“It has been said that the greatness of any nation or society is measured by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. Like millions of children around the world, Burundian street kids nicknamed the “Maibobo”, dream about basic needs such as food on the table, clothes on their back, a shelter and a safe environment to live in, and maybe a good education in a healthy society. However, it is a sad reality that most continue to have their rights denied, their lives threatened by violence, physical, mental and sexual abuse. The streets of Bujumbura are filled with such children. All they ask for is to be recognized that they are “somebody” with full rights recognized by not only their society but also the universal declaration of Human Rights. I say this because today “I am somebody”. It was not always the case.

I was nobody but now I am somebody

To a lesser extent, at some point in the past, life events and circumstances caused me to doubt and to wrongly think that I was nobody. In 1995, I fled my country Burundi due to the long civil war and became a stateless, homeless refugee first in Swaziland, South Africa then in the United States of America. Many times, I was like a statistic and we know that statistics are abstract and can never claim their God-given inalienable rights, but all people including street kids do have rights.  I learnt through those unfortunate experiences never to take for granted even the right to claim your humanity; because somewhere, somehow, someone may not share the belief in human equality and may hold dear to the misguided belief that some people are more equal than others. My biggest commitment was to always advocate on behalf of the weakest and less fortunate, among whom are children living on the street, because I have been in a relatively similar position, though to a lesser tragic degree.

Let’s speak up on behalf of children on the street

Children who live on the streets are considered a statistic in many cases. According to UNICEF, there are between 50 to 120 million street children in the world, 10 times the number of refugees, another neglected category. There are just too many street children that they become almost invisible in their societies, especially in overpopulated urban slums and in countries where extreme poverty and conflicts are prevalent.

Because few people speak up on their behalf, our communities are overwhelmed with the sheer enormity of the number, throw our hands in the air and give up on them. We rationalize our inaction and soon, we begin to see something wrong with the kids on the street. Our disgust against their alleged anti-social behaviors such as school abandonment, glue sniffing, alcoholism, drug addiction, street begging, and stealing…gives us the right to stigmatize and ostracize them. However, I commend the efforts by people and organizations who are working to improve the welfare of this group. They deserve better.

Great work by New Generation, Street Action and Street Child World Cup

By providing a shelter and basic needs, New Generation Burundi and Street Action -a UK based organization – are on the forefront of recognition that street children deserve to have their rights and dreams respected. And by giving a chance to the Burundian street children to go to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, effectively making them football ambassadors for their country, we recognize not only that they deserve a break in life, but also their capacity to strive and why not, become champions. While I will root for Burundi to win the Street Child World Cup in March 2014, I will be satisfied to see them meet other children from the world, playing and enjoying themselves, as it is their right to be happy.

Football as a tool for life lessons

Growing up in the northern suburbs of Bujumbura, football was a constant in my life. We played everywhere, from the dusty streets of Cibitoke to the green turf of Prince Louis Rwagasore Stadium passing by the white sand beaches of Lake Tanganyika. Like in any team sport, in football we made lifelong friendships, learnt important skills such as collaboration and teamwork, respect, sportsmanship, goal-setting and execution; all the skills we need to live in a society. So besides their already developed resilience, street children will learn new lessons to add to their repertoire of skills in order to develop into fully productive member of the Burundian society and solve their problems associated with stigma and rejection, extreme poverty.

Like it has been said before, football is a great outlet to allow children the chance to dream about a future free from the poverty that they experience in their day-to-day lives.

Let’s help make the kids’ dreams come true

Although the journey from Bujumbura to Rio de Janeiro is long, if you walk with them one step at the time, as we raise funds to help the Burundian children go to the World Cup, I believe and I am  excited about the potential of these kids and their ability to make their own dreams come true.

I am somebody. I am John Manirakiza, a member of the Burundian SCWC committee who believes that no child should ever have to sleep on the streets.”

John Manirakiza, Burundian-American, former footballer and supporter of Team Burundi for SCWC 2014

John Manirakiza, Burundian-American, former footballer and supporter of Team Burundi for SCWC 2014

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