Barcelona FC's president opens multi-purpose hall in Rwandan refugee camp

Joan Laporta, president of FC Barcelona, opens a special community hall for Congolese refugees during a landmark visit to Kiziba camp in Rwanda.

FC Barcelona President Joan Laporta surrounded by excited children at Kiziba camp.

FC Barcelona President Joan Laporta surrounded by excited children at Kiziba camp.  © Courtesy of Eduardo Rubio

KIZIBA, Rwanda, March 9 (UNHCR) - Joan Laporta, president of Spanish football giants FC Barcelona, opened a special community hall for Congolese refugees during a visit earlier this month to Kiziba camp in Rwanda.

Laporta and Barcelona executives, guided by staff from the UN refugee agency, visited the hilltop camp in the north-west corner of the country last Thursday. Kiziba, home to some 19,000 refuges from Democratic Republic of the Congo's eastern provinces, is one of three camps to have benefitted from the "MÉS" campaign, a special partnership between UNHCR, Nike and the FC Barcelona Foundation.

The youthful Barcelona chief received a warm welcome from the camp residents, many of whom knew about his team and were keen to meet him. "Barcelona has done a lot to enable us to play sports in the camp," said 17-year-old Arsene, whose family fled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he was only two years old.

The highlight of the visit was the opening of the multi-purpose hall, where refugees will be able to hold cultural events and community meetings as well as play indoor sports and watch television. The hall will also be used for educational purposes and workshops. It was built with funding from the FC Barcelona Foundation.

"It will become the central place for strengthening community life," predicted Manuel Dos Santos, head of the UNHCR field office at Kiziba, adding that it was popularly known as Barça Hall.

This was the first time that Laporta had visited a UNHCR field operation or a refugee camp, but Barcelona has been providing support to the refugees in Kiziba, Nyabiheke and Gihembe camps since he signed a three-year partnership agreement with High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in 2008.

"Thanks to everybody for putting their hearts into this," Laporta said in an address to the refugees. "The best sporting decision I ever made was to develop the Foundation to help people like you."

Many of the younger refugees, such as Arsene, play football in the camp and follow Barcelona and other big European teams on TV. "I can't believe the president of Barça has come here. We are very happy. It means a lot to us," Arsene said.

Laporta also visited the Kigali Memorial Centre, which was opened in 2004 to remember the estimated 800,000 people who lost their lives during the ethnic bloodletting of 1994.

On his return to Spain, Laporta attended activities in the southern port of Almeria linked to the departure on Sunday of a Play4Africa convoy, an initiative supported by both Barcelona and UNHCR. The Play4Africa vehicles will travel through 14 countries on their way to Cape Town in time for the World Cup football finals.

They will be stopping at dozens of towns en route, handing out footballs, boots and humanitarian aid to needy people. The beneficiaries will also include thousands of young refugee sport lovers in countries such as Sudan, Rwanda and Kenya. UNHCR is providing some logistical support.

By Line Pedersen in Kiziba, Rwanda