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A chance to play - at last


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From KW Record about new the future may hold


Friday, February 02, 2007 | Updated at 7:07 AM EST

A chance to play - at last



Jackson Rukundo, 17, (left) Innocent Jahudi, 14, and Emmanuel Mugabo, 21.


Emmanuel Mugabo readies for a kick as he plays a game with friends at the Field House at RIM Park yesterday.

WATERLOO (Feb 2, 2007)

The casual game of soccer unfolding at RIM Park looked, at first glance, very much like the ones taking place on the adjacent pitches.

Fancy footwork. Powerful kicks. Nice saves. Smiling, sweaty faces.

But there was something special about this one match on Field No. 2 yesterday afternoon. For three of the participants -- the ones sporting the biggest grins -- it was the first time they'd ever set foot on an indoor field.

First time they'd ever played soccer in Canada, actually.

There have been a lot of firsts in their young lives in the weeks since brothers Jackson Rukundo and Emmanuel Mugabo and new friend Innocent Jahudi arrived in Kitchener with their families as government-sponsored refugees from camps in Africa.

Their first taste of a Canadian winter, for example. Their first, tentative steps on a skating rink.

The first time they've really experienced the kindness of complete strangers. The first time, in a very long time, that they've felt safe.

"Life was too harsh," said Emmanuel, 21.

For 10 years, Emmanuel, his five siblings, mother and cousin Enoch Noel lived in a refugee camp in Uganda. During that time, Innocent lived in a camp in Rwanda, having met up with his aunt and her three children.

Both families had fled from what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where violence tore the families apart.

Enoch and Innocent lost their parents. Jackson and Emmanuel lost their father. The scar on Jackson's head shows that he, too, was almost taken.

Escape to the camps introduced the families to worlds of kidnapping and beatings, rape and robbery.

"We take everything for granted, as Canadians," said Pastor Bill Horne of Waterloo's Glen Acres Baptist Church, whose parishioners have unofficially adopted the two families.

"These guys are reminding us to be appreciative of what we have."

Horne and the members of his church may never have met the families had Enoch not wandered in while exploring his new surroundings.

The young man -- very proud of his Baptist roots -- stumbled upon the congregation's Christmas dinner in mid-December, just a few days after arriving from Africa.

Church members shared their meal, and he shared his story.

Since then, the congregation has embraced the 13 members of these two families.

Church members have driven the newcomers to appointments and helped get them established in their Kitchener apartments. All of the younger children are attending school, and everyone is taking English lessons.

Horne said his church is also determined to help the families pay back a total of about $15,000 in airfare and government landing fees.

"They are of modest means," Horne said, "and this is hanging over their heads."

Horne and the members of his church can't erase the almost incomprehensible images these survivors carry with them. But they can help to create better memories, in a new land.

Like playing a game of soccer, something that Jackson and Emmanuel used to do whenever they could in the camp.

Church member Kellie Wheldon and her family can take a lot of the credit for making it happen.

When Wheldon's daughters Cassie and Ainsley, both avid soccer players, heard that a recent visit with Horne to see the indoor fields at RIM and Bechtel Park had left the newcomers amazed, they had an idea.

"The girls said 'Why don't we rent RIM, so they can play?'" Wheldon said.

So for an hour yesterday, Jackson, Emmanuel and Innocent did just that, joined by about 20 of their new friends.

"I think they've had very little chance in their lives to just play," said Linda Wolfe, a staff member at the church.

"In the last few weeks, you could see them just physically relax," she said. "To see them run around like this, and smile and laugh, it's priceless."


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