21 October 2022
Documentary Film Captures Underdog Story of 'The Challengers'
The journey of a lifetime started in a bank line. It was a regular day Trinidad and Tobago, in February 2018 and Kanhai “Coach Perry” Sirjoo was waiting his turn to the teller when a man he never met before called his name. “Do I know you?” he asked. “No,” the man replied. “But I liked your shirt and saw it said Perry.” “It’s a volleyball shirt. I’m a volleyball coach,” Perry said. The man, Jesus Limpio, instantly lit up. A Venezuelan national, Jesus grew up in Maturin, a city in the north-west of the country, where he played volleyball with the local teams. At the time he and Perry had their fateful encounter in the bank line, he had been living and working in Trinidad for about ten years. And in all that time, no matter how much he loved the sport, or how good he was at it, he could never find a volleyball team that would let him join. “He told me how he tried to join another club, but they didn’t want any ‘Spanish’ players,” Perry recalled. “I told him, don’t bother with that. I have a club, you can come and play with me.” Jesus – now The Challengers team captain – said: “He asked if I could play. I said, well, yeah. And he just said, okay. And that’s how it started.” Word quickly spread through Trinidad’s Venezuelan community that The Challengers didn’t discriminate according to nationality, and soon the team grew as more and more Venezuelan volleyballers found a safe place to play and practice. Now for the competition. Even though The Challengers was registered with the Trinidad and Tobago Volleyball Federation, the league rules stated that only Trinidad and Tobago Nationals were allowed to compete in tournaments. That made no sense to Perry, so he petitioned the board to change the rules. “The national league was focused on local development for the sport, which is something I understand and respect,” Jesus said. “At the same time, I still hoped that we would be able to practise the sport.” At a meeting in 2019, Perry stood before the board and told the members that his team were more than just Venezuelans or migrants or anything. “They are people. And they are not here by choice. If they had a choice, they would stay in their homeland because people prefer to be home.” Perry assured the board that The Challengers would support their members, regardless of nationality, for the good of the game. His speech and his conviction that anyone who wanted to play volleyball should be allowed to play the sport moved the board. “I remember they asked us to leave the room while they made their decision. After a while, the called us back in and said yes, Venezuelans could play in the league. It was an amazing moment,” Jesus said. The Challengers had overcome one of their biggest obstacles. Now, it was time to prove their mettle. And they did not disappoint. In their first year of competition, the women’s team topped their league, and the men came third. Their hard work, team spirit and persistence inspired their colleagues, and soon the other local teams no longer saw them as outsiders, but true competitors in the spirit of sportsmanship. In 2020 -2021, the league was suspended as the world went into lockdown to mitigate the impact of the Covid19 pandemic. It was tough on the team, especially since for so many of them, volleyball provided a bright spot – an escape – from the everyday struggles of life. Marianny Villasana, the women’s team captain said, “Volleyball (helps) to destress. We can forget about home, work, problems, Venezuela, all those things.” Most of the Venezuelan team members are asylum-seekers and migrants who left their homes seeking a better life. The pandemic, however, exacerbated their vulnerable situations, as many of the sectors in which they work were hit especially hard by Covid19 restrictions, including the service industry, construction, agriculture, beauty, hospitality and domestic work. This year, in 2022, things are finally starting to improve. The league restarted, and both the men and women’s teams were eager to get back on the court. For some, though it’s still a struggle as they are forced to choose between work and play. “I cannot leave my family and the household needs to do things I like,” said Emin Rodriguez, a member of the team who had to withdraw from competition because he could not afford to participate. Several of his other teammates also faced similar struggles. The men’s team eventually had to withdraw from this year’s competition entirely because the game schedule clashed with their work times, making it almost impossible for them to get time off to compete. The women’s team, however, were lucky. They were able to enter this year’s tournament. And they won! Beyond winning, though, The Challengers is an inspiration – a celebration of how inclusion and integration of refugees and migrants can benefit their host community. UNHCR first started supporting the Challengers in 2019, and that relationship has grown into a beacon of positivity and opportunity for refugees and migrants in Trinidad and Tobago. The next logical step, then, was to tell The Challengers story to a wider audience. Trinidadian filmmaker Rhonda Chan Soo was up to the challenge of making that happen, directing the short documentary film eponymously called The Challengers, produced by UNHCR though the support of the European Union through the Inclusive Cities/Cities of Solidarity project. “It’s the classic underdog sports story,” said UNHCR Head of National Office Miriam Aertker. “We want to highlight the positive achievements and initiatives by Coach Perry and the team.” The film, Rhonda added, is a snapshot into the lives of the Venezuelan members of The Challengers, whose experience reflect the wider reality of refugees and migrants in Trinidad and Tobago. “Hopefully we can plant different seeds that get people thinking about the issues facing Venezuelan refugees and migrants, and how we can resolve them,” she said.