Soccer league sends equipment to African children

Nettles delivers gear to refugee camp

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

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Submitted photo
Harriet Nettles, left, with Lawrence Yealue, whom she considers her adopted son, at a ‘‘peace pole” at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana last year.

When Harriet Nettles flew to Ghana last summer, and again in December, she took along some unusual baggage: cleats, balls, jerseys and other equipment donated by a local soccer league.

Nettles was traveling to Buduburam Refugee Settlement, a camp for Liberian refugees who fled the West African country during its long civil war. The gear was for the children living at the camp.

Nettles, who lives in Mechanicsville, has a long history of work in Africa –– and a personal connection to soccer. She first traveled to Africa as a college student, and was impressed by the ‘‘hospitality [and] generosity” of the people, even ‘‘when they had nothing.”

A few years ago, a friend of Nettles’ suggested she go back to Africa. Nettles had suffered a head injury in a car accident, putting her career as a college professor on hold. Her friend saw she was at loose ends, and suggested she attend a youth leadership conference sponsored by the Apeadu Peace Center. The group went to a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana, where up to 40,000 refugees lived in ‘‘dreadful conditions,” Nettles said. Diseases like typhoid and dysentery were commonplace.

‘‘We felt we had to do something,” she said.

At the camp, Nettles met Lawrence Yealue, who had lost his family, including 12 brothers and sisters, in the Lutheran Church Massacre in Monrovia in 1990. Yealue fled to Ivory Coast, and later ended up in the refugee camp in Ghana, said Nettles. ‘‘Soccer and music were the two things that kept [Yealue] going,” said Nettles.

During her third summer at the camp, said Nettles, Yealue ‘‘asked if we had room in our family for him.” Today, Nettles’ family is putting Yealue, whom they consider their adopted son, through Wisconsin International University in Ghana.

Maryland has a long connection with Liberia, Nettles pointed out. The settlement of Maryland in West Africa was founded in the 1830s by free blacks from the state of Maryland. The colony gained its independence in 1854, and the Republic of Maryland was a free nation until it joined Liberia as Maryland County about three years later. The state of Maryland signed a sister state agreement with Liberia’s Bong and Maryland counties in August 2007.

The purpose of a sister-state relationship is to ‘‘promote people to people exchanges throughout the world,” said Mendy Nitsch, director of international affairs in the office of Maryland’s Secretary of State. A mission to Liberia is planned for early June. ‘‘As Americans, we have such a deep responsibility” to help in Africa, said Nettles.

Last August, when she was planning to go to the refugee camp with the One World Youth Project, a sister-school project for middle and high school students, Nettles contacted Barry Lewis, president of the Northern Soccer League. Lewis said he was happy to donate the equipment on behalf of the league. ‘‘The benefits from sports ... go far beyond the sport itself,” he said. ‘‘It’s a great thing to do for kids in other countries.”

The league also donated equipment to African children last year through Russ Miller, parent of a player on a select team –– ‘‘enough to outfit four teams,” Lewis said.

‘‘Maybe someday a photographer will be taking pictures [of African children], and we’ll see Northern Soccer League shirts,” said Lewis.

In December, Nettles went back to Ghana with a group called Mediators Beyond Borders, which provided mediation training for 60 people at the refugee camp. ‘‘What these people really need is a way to avoid war,” said Nettles. Nettles gave the equipment to children that play on teams organized by the Respect Club, an international organization based in Canada that aims to improve the conditions of refugees.