Halifax couple wins award for getting African Nova Scotian, immigrant children into soccer

A Halifax couple with African roots are being recognized for their work in getting African Nova Scotian and immigrant children, and families with financial barriers involved in soccer.

Oussama and Hadia Bedoui co-founded Ignite Soccer in 2020. Oussama is the president and head coach. Ignite was officially recognized as a club under Soccer Nova Scotia earlier this year. Oussama said Ignite has grown significantly in the last two years.

“The feedback we get is how they feel at home, how they feel supported, and how they never had a good experience before like they’re having with us now,” Oussama said.

The club offers development team programs for children up to age 15, high-performance programs for youth under 15 and up to age 18, men’s senior teams, private training sessions for all ages, and after-school programs for elementary school children.

The Bedouis are co-recipients of one of 11 2022 Volkswagen FC: Game Changers awards, which are presented in partnership between Volkswagen Canada and the Canadian Premiere League (CPL).

The awards are given to Canadian volunteers, mentors, and soccer coaches who make a positive impact on their communities through the game of soccer.

Halifax Wanderers FC, which plays in the CPL, nominated the Bedouis for their efforts in providing access to children and families who often remain marginalized within, or altogether shut out of the sport. They were also nominated for the club’s quality of training and the financial support they offer to families through sponsorships.

“In my few short weeks as Commissioner of the Premiere League, I have been lucky to witness the strength and commitment of the Canadian soccer community, a testament to the leaders who continue to push for the development of our sport on and off the field,” said CPL Commissioner Mark Noonan in a letter to the Bedouis.

“By founding Ignite Soccer, you are not only providing access to the game for children who may not otherwise have the opportunity. You are enriching their lives with possibilities that come with being involved in sport.”

Ignite Soccer focuses on providing a culture of diversity among its players and coaches.

“We have a lot of white local kids, South American, European kids, and I always mix the teams when they practice and when they play,” Oussama said. “And we try to teach them that we all came from a different culture, a different country. We speak differently, but when we play football or soccer, this is what keeps us speaking the same language. And hopefully the message gets there one day.”

Oussama grew up playing soccer in Tunisia where Hadia's parents are from. Oussama moved to Halifax in 2013. Haida grew up in Halifax.

Oussama joined the Metro Senior Men’s Soccer League (MSMSL), and in 2016, he registered with Soccer Nova Scotia to take courses to become a licensed soccer coach. He started the league’s first team made up exclusively of African players, the African Allstars. Oussama served as a player and the team's head coach.

On the final day of the course, Oussama said he was approached by the technical director and a coach for the Dunbrack Soccer Club in Halifax.

“I had a plan to get the license, then I’d go find a coach to be his assistant coach for a year at least, then I’d learn more, and then I could become a head coach,” Oussama said.

Oussama said Dunbrack Soccer Club wanted him to be the head coach of a boys under-13 team whose season was starting in just two weeks.

“He said, ‘No, no, we’ve been here watching you every weekend, and you’re ready. We know you can do it,’” Oussama said.

After moving to Halifax, Oussama said he was surprised at the low number of children and players involved in soccer.

He said he’s since made community connections to try to get more Black and immigrant children involved in the sport.

“It always ends up the same story,” he said. “The kid doesn’t want to go to the team or to that club anymore. And so that [leaves] so many questions, what are we doing wrong?”

“I heard different stories. They share a little bit here and there about different clubs, and everybody has different stories. One, because financially. The other one is they feel racism is involved,” he said.” “But I want to just focus on what we can do the best to support them, and just keep them happy, playing, and enjoying the game.”

Oussama said African immigrant children can also face additional barriers because of cultural differences. He said he’s witnessed players tell African children to speak English.

“That, to me, is part of racism. Don’t say that. Those kids, you don’t know what they came from. You don’t know what they’re running from. You don’t know what the family’s been through.”

“I mean I know the government and everyone is trying their best to keep racism away, but I faced racism. I’m a coach. I still play. I face racism a couple times a year in the game,” he said. “And I’m 39 years old. I heard racism from other kids towards our kids and I had to step in and say, ‘Hey, we don’t say that.’”

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Oussama said he approached the MSMSL about having teams take a knee in a moment of silence before each game that season. The league agreed.

Hadia Bedoui takes care of the sponsorships for the teams and approaches local businesses for their help.

Hadia is a certified personal trainer and said she’s also working towards getting her coaching license to help coach Ignite’s high-performance teams.

She said her father has always been a huge soccer fan, but it was Oussama who got her involved in the sport.

“The more he pursued it, the more excited I would be for him because he was following his passion, and then I kind of wanted to support him on that journey. So, I started to get more involved.”

“Every kid that comes or who we’re able to reach kind of feels like they’re our own child,” Hadia said. “So, whatever we’re capable of doing to get them involved, to make them feel supported, to make them feel like they’re a part of something, then we do it.”

Hadia said much of her free time is spent at thrift shops looking for cleats, clothing, and gear for the teams.

She said that soccer is merely a “vehicle” they use to help with the larger goal in supporting players and their families.

“Some of these kids, they come from a lot of trauma, and at the end of the day some of the kids that we help, a lot of them have come from war-torn countries,” Hadia said. “We can’t even begin to even understand half of the things that they’ve seen or experienced or had to go through in their little lives.”

She said the club not only works to provide access to soccer and equipment, but also connects them with job opportunities and transportation.

“It’s the community that really deserves to be awarded as well because they’re the ones that have helped us build Ignite Soccer and helped us to be able to do things the way we want to do them and not have to follow suit with the other clubs,” Hadia said.

Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Halifax Examiner