SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Haitian women gather in a circle on the grass at the edge of the soccer field, put their arms around their teammates’ shoulders and bow their heads in prayer.
They pray for the families they’ve been away from since March. They pray for their impoverished country that is still recovering four years after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake killed tens of thousands. Most immediately, though, they pray they play well enough to become the first team from their country — and first from the Caribbean — to qualify for the Women’s World Cup next year in Canada.
“We are so grateful because we are still alive,” midfielder Woodlyne “Ketura” Robuste said. “We thank God for everything.”
The women climb through holes in the fence surrounding the soccer field on the outskirts of South Bend to practice twice a day, pursue their dream and pray. “En, de, twa” the women say in Creole in unison after finishing their prayer and yell emphatically in English: “2015!”
They are training for the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, which also serves as a qualifying tournament for the World Cup. There are eight teams trying to qualify for four spots. The Haitians face Guatemala in Kansas City on Oct. 15, Trinidad & Tobago in suburban Chicago on Oct. 17 and the United States in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 20. The top two teams move on to the next round.
Nearly everyone on the Haitian team has a family member who died or was seriously injured in the earthquake four years ago. Robuste lost an uncle. Defender Natacha Cajuste’s brother lost a leg and she was the only survivor in a Port-au-Prince cafe when the quake struck.
“It was scary. I felt like I was dreaming and I didn’t know what to do,” Cajuste said in Creole, with Robuste translating for her. “Fifteen people in the cafe were killed.”
The women wish their dream of a World Cup berth would buoy the spirits of their countrymen, but they’re not sure it will. Some in the Caribbean nation don’t believe women should play soccer.
“They believe in the boys but they don’t believe in us, the girls,” Robuste said.
Defender Kencia Marseille said her mother would spank her when she was a child for playing soccer. But the women believe in themselves and play for each other.
“We work hard on the field, we are mentally strong and we help each other on the field,” Marseille said.
When Shek Borkowski took over as coach in 2012, he insisted the team train in northern Indiana, where he lives, because the players wouldn’t be able to focus on soccer in Haiti.
“From families expecting that they are working, watching siblings, fetching water, there are too many distractions. They also have a different concept of time in Haiti,” Borkowski said. “By being in the United States, I think it’s a more structured and more disciplined environment.”
It also has allowed them to play against American college teams.
The women live in an apartment complex near the soccer field with nine women living in each apartment. It’s not much, but it is plenty for women who spent months living in tents after the earthquake. Their only complaint is about the colder weather autumn brings. Marseille used Robuste as a translator during an interview, but when the subject of the weather came up she answered quickly in English: “I don’t like cold.”
Borkowski describes the players as resilient.
“They’re pretty content with what they have,” he said. “We have a 20-year-old van. If we have to travel six hours for a game, nobody complains. For them this is an opportunity.”
They receive almost no financial support from the Haitian Federation of Soccer, Borkowski said. They have depended heavily on donations from local soccer fans to pay for the apartments, for the rice, beans and plantains they eat, for their equipment. They also raise money by selling rotisserie chicken from parking lots, like local teams and Scouts do, and by holding soccer camps for high school teams, clubs and churches.
They received attention this past week when the team took the $1,316 it had in its account and donated it to the Trinidad and Tobago team that had no funds at all after arriving in Dallas to train. The Clinton Foundation, the charitable organization run by former President Bill Clinton and his family, heard about the challenges the Haiti team was facing and offered to help it raise money for the Haiti women’s program.
Borkowski, who isn’t getting paid for his work, concedes he took the position partly out of selfish reasons.
“As a coach, you want to test yourself at the highest level,” he said. “Any coach would want to coach in the World Cup. But then after you get to meet these players and the challenges that they face, you get involved a little bit more and more.”
Borkowski doesn’t speak the language of his players. At a recent practice, he implored a player to work harder.
“Do you understand?” he asked.
She answered in Creole.
“What’d she say?” he asked as he looked across the field toward Robuste.
Five of the women speak at least a little English and another five understand some English. The others depend on teammates to help them communicate.
The team has been training in South Bend for six months at a time for the past three years and then returning to Haiti because of visa rules, Borkowski said. Robuste said it’s hard being away from home so long.
“We miss our families and friends because we can talk to them only on the phone. But we know we’re here to get ready for the tournament,” she said.
Earning a berth to the World Cup will make all the work and the time away from their homes worthwhile, Robuste said.
“Going to the World Cup would mean the world to us because we’ve been working so hard,” Robuste said. “We wish we can go to the World Cup. We believe we will go to the World Cup. We’re going to make history.”
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