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MANILA, Philippines – It’s a game that’s changing lives.
For 13-year-old Sameer Adam, football is not just a sport – it’s a way for him to achieve his dreams of a better life. Growing up in a conflict area in Sultan Kudarat, Adam would have been part of an armed struggle at a young age. But instead, he is playing football under the Philippine Marine Corps’ (PMC) Football for Peace program.
Adam said he works hard to excel in the sport because he wants to help his family.
“Gusto kong makaahon sa buhay ko para ‘di mahirapan ‘yung mga parents ko sa mga gastusin,” he said. (I want to do better in life so that my parents won’t have a hard time paying our expenses.)
The young boy sees the program as a stepping stone to reaching his goals – to finish his education through scholarship programs that he can be given.
“Naniniwala ako na itong programa ng mga Marines makakatulong ito sa’kin lalung-lalo na kapag maging scholar ako,” he added. (I believe that this program will help me, especially when I become a scholar.)
On April 22 to 29, for the first time in his life, Adam visited Manila as one of the 168 delegates chosen by the Marines to participate in this year’s Football for Peace Festival and Educational Tours. He said the experience was an eye-opener.
“Noong nakita ko yung Maynila, parang maganda dito kaysa doon (sa amin). Parang nakapag-isip ako na gusto ko rito,” he said. (When I saw the city of Manila, I realized that it’s much better here than Sultan Kudarat. I liked it better here.)
The educational tour gives aspiring football players from conflict areas across the country the opportunity to be exposed to developed communities in the capital region. It also gives them fresh experiences of interacting with other people, helping them develop their own self-confidence.
Out of the hundreds of kids they teach in different provinces, the marines pick 10 who will participate in the educational tour every year. According to Lt. Col. Stephen L. Cabanlet, the program’s founder, they do this every year to show the children the opportunities that await them in the cities.
“The lifestyle in Sulu is paired with guns. What the Marines want is to change the perspective of the children,” Cabanlet said.
“We want them to realize and say, ‘Why do I need to hold a gun, when I can just hold a book?’ When they grow up, we want the things that they see here in Manila to inspire their future career decisions.”
This year’s educational tour included visits to the AFP Theater, the Mind Museum, Luneta Park, and Museong Pambata. The children were able to watch the movie “Rio 2” and explore the different malls around Metro Manila.
The children had the chance to interact and play with the popular Azkal brothers, Phil and James Younghusband. A football clinic with the Meralco Sparks was also done at the Emperador Stadium.
The delegates also competed with teams from the Ateneo, La Salle, Don Bosco, and other football clubs in the National Capital Region (NCR), Batangas, and Cavite, in a football competition held throughout the week.
Books over guns, balls over bullets
Sulu-based Philippine Marines started the Football for Peace program because they wanted to teach good values to the disaffected youth of Sulu through sports. What started as their pastime eventually became their advocacy.
Playing football became an avenue for them to connect with the local communities.The Marines slowly changed their image from “war-fighters” to being well-loved coaches.
From having only one football for 100 kids in Sulu, the program has expanded to the provinces of Palawan, Tawi-Tawi, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Zambonga. With the help of various groups, the Marines were able to collect footballs for the children. Rappler, through a crowd sourced campaign, donated 1,200 footballs to the program. Recently, Chevrolet Philippines donated 2,000 indestructible balls to the campaign.
Cabanlet said the program is not only changing the children’s lives but also the impression that the military has in the communities.
“When they talk about the military, they immediately think that we’re present to devastate them. We are warriors, so the connotation is danger, but we also want them to see the other side of the Marines,” Cabanlet said.
“We want to establish a good relationship in the community. We want to help build the community.”
Better future through football
The PMC uses football to instill moral values that the children can carry with them for the rest of their lives. The objective has remained the same over the past 3 years – opening the children’s minds to a life where violence is not the answer.
The coaches assigned to the various age brackets said that it is not hard to teach the children because they treat them like their real parents.
“We don’t just train these kids to play football. We teach them discipline too. It’s part of the game to respect people, so we also teach them that. I’m not just their coach, but I can also be their parent,” Rodelyn Amigos, a coach assigned at Jolo, Sulu, said in Filipino.
The program contributes to the individual growth of the chosen students. Corporal Arnel Soriano, head coach of the First Marine Brigade of the football club, said the kids learn to become more responsible for their actions.
“By simply teaching them to sweep the floor or fix their beds, we’ve helped them develop their sense of responsibility to one another. They get to practice this at home, too,” Soriano added.
The project has evolved to serve as an encouragement and a source of inspiration to the children. What used to be only a call for peace has given hope to the hundreds of kids like Adam who struggle because of violence. For the Marines, football has been a great aid to peace, and a way for the children to dream of a better future. – With reports from Anna Galura and Bjorn Landas/ Rappler.com