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Philippine street gang kids find better life through football

NGO seeks to offer youths a hopeful alternative

Philippine street gang kids find better life through football

Philippine youths participate in soccer drills as part of a pilot program to steer them away from gangs. (Photo by Keith Bacongco)

Keith Bacongco, Davao del Sur

April 28, 2014

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The Gods Against War gang used to lord over the streets of Digos town in Davao del Sur province until its young members realized it's easier to run in the middle of a field than in dark alleys.

"It used to be difficult to avoid trouble," says Bonifacio Fuentes, 20, a former gangster. "Peer pressure and influence force you into riots."

"You cannot just run away," says Junrey Midagat, another gang member. "You will be called a coward, then your pride is hurt, and then you fight."

Fuentes and Midaga, both members of Gods Against War, figured in several gang wars until they discovered soccer.

Today, Fuentes and Midaga and some 300 other children no longer run with a gang but on soccer pitches after joining the social sports program of the United Youth for Development.

The organization is an independent initiative that provides alternative learning systems, formal education and livelihood skills for children in need. It got its support from the soccer giant Real Madrid Foundation and Mapfre Foundation.

"The kids here don't just play soccer. They either attend formal or non-formal schooling. These two are incorporated," explains Pablo Tanuan, the organization's executive director. He says that by playing soccer, the children are able to use their "energies," which they used in street fights, into the game.

"To be an athlete is just secondary. The primary aim [of the program] is how to be a responsible citizen," he says, adding that it is the reason why "we gave more focus on former gang members."

The organization's Social Sports School accepts volunteers to help run the school.

"We have several soccer coaches whom we only pay per session because we cannot afford to pay them regularly," Tanuan says.

In 2011, a coach from the Real Madrid Foundation came to the Philippines and trained coaches and some players. Among those who were trained were Fuentes and Midagat. 

"In the past, we were on the streets. Now we are on the pitches teaching the children the game as well as sharing the lessons of our past," says Fuentes.

"I realized that I feel safe and secure after leaving the gang," Midagat says, adding that the program gave him an opportunity "to correct wrong doings in the past."

Other gang members have also joined the school. "As of now, we already have at least 40 former gang members who are playing soccer and studying," says Tanauan.

He says it is "very challenging" to convince gang members to focus on the program.

"If we don't give more attention to these gang members, they will still go back to the streets," Tanauan says, adding that some even quit school. "But at least we gave them an opportunity to transform."

"[Soccer] is just a hook. [Soccer] is just something that attracts the community to enroll in the program that will help them," says Javier Warleta, president of Mapfre Insurance, who came to deliver at least 40 soccer balls from the Real Madrid Foundation in late April.

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