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How Manipur’s trans footballers are coaching kids stuck in relief camps | India News

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In 2020, Manipur witnessed the emergence of India’s first all-trans football team ‘Ya.All’ – meaning ‘you all’ in English, ‘revolution’ in Manipuri and ‘inclusive revolution’ when combined. Currently, this team is on a new mission – coaching children stranded in Manipur’s relief camps in the midst of an ethnic conflict that has plunged the state into civil unrest since May.
The initiative mirrors the trans football team’s own origins. Kicking the ball around helped these trans players find an escape from their traumas and a safe space to play. Sadam Hanjabam, founder of Ya.All, says the conflict was so sudden that everything came to a grinding halt. “In the initial days, many of us from the football team worked as volunteers, carrying relief material to far-flung areas. We noticed that within the relief camps, there were many traumatised children and adolescents sitting idle all day. Parents themselves were too overwhelmed to tend to their children,” says Hanjabam.
Sensing an opportunity to heal the young victims huddled in relief camps across Manipur, the Ya.All football squad assumed a novel role as coaches to these youngsters. “The camp setting and the mental state of the children wasn’t geared towards studies. They required healing before being pushed to school again. This prompted our decision to extract them from the camps and employ our chosen tool: football,” he adds.
Choosing football as the conduit was a natural progression. Already helping mend the trauma of the team members who had grappled with conflict as queer individuals, the sport could offer the children an escape from the emotional trauma on a football field. “As queer and trans individuals, we’re used to living with conflict all the time – internal battle with identity and external conflict of discrimination from larger society. So, we’ve learnt to navigate it and understand crisis management. We’re just extending that and our expertise in sports to bring joy and optimism to the children,” says Hanjabam.
A group of five players from Ya.All take turns journeying to districts, scouting relief camps close to playgrounds and then conducting an eight-day football session. Once a playground has been identified and the derelict ones cleared of weeds and overgrown grass to create a football turf, the Ya.
All team heads there for the sessions that span 5.30am to 7am. After an hour of play, the children gather in a circle for conversations over breakfast that the Ya.All team provides. “Previously, the kids would narrate stories of how they had to run away from home with their parents, being without food for days and how they took time to adjust to life in a relief camp. Many are too young to even understand what’s happening,” recounts Hanjabam. “At the same time, we do not want them to constantly relive the trauma. So, we engage them in conversations about school, home, and friendships as an escape from that harrowing physical and mental space. Our goal is to guide them towards recovery and instill a renewed sense of hope.” For these children, the playground has turned out to be a much-needed retreat. “They were seeking a happy space, where they could just momentarily forget about all the clashes over who is Kuki or Meitei and be their age, something that had been taken away from them,” adds Hanjabam. This routine has been in place since July, covering 70 relief camps across four districts – Bishnupur, Kakching, Imphal East, and currently Imphal West – and seen about 50 children aged seven to 18 engage in these coaching sessions in each district.
“Once the children are ready to play independently, typically after a week or two, the team moves on to another district. We’re trying to reach out to as many relief camps as possible.” However, their attempts weren’t without challenges. Sudden curfews or conflicts often disrupt the flow. “There were questions too: why is this necessary? What if something goes wrong? Yet, we pressed forward,” says Hanjabam. As for the Ya. All football team itself, for the past month they have been gathering weekly once again to engage in friendly matches to rejuvenate their own game and spirits. However, their involvement with the relief camp children has become a driving force. Hanjabam sums up the sentiment: “Each morning, when our team members spring into action at 4am to venture into conflict-ridden areas, they do so with empathy and a shared goal – if we want peace, we have to help ourselves to it.”





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