Happy Tu b'Av!
Haveil Havalim #326: Jewish Blog Carnival, the post-Tu-B'Av edition

Fields of dreams

On ESPN earlier this week I saw a poignant short documentary piece about a team of Ugandan boys who qualified for the Little League World Series but weren't allowed to enter the US because of visa difficulties stemming from developing-world paperwork (or lack thereof.) The embedded video, below, is 5:28 long and quite visually stunning -- though what really moves me is not the cinematography but the kids, their pride and their frustration and their hope.

(You can go directly to the video here at ESPN -- the embedded video I originally had here seems to not be working anymore, but the direct link works.)

The short tv piece was produced by documentary filmmaker Jay Shapiro, who's been in Uganda working on a documentary about Little League baseball in Uganda (and has been blogging about it at my quaint and quiet life.) The film he's making is called Opposite Field:

For the first time in the 65-year existence an African team qualified to "play ball" in the Little League World Series. When their historic quest ended their dreams did not.

Rising from the ghettos of Uganda, the Rev. John Foundation Little League from Kampala has overcome extreme poverty and tragic setbacks to follow their dreams to America and test their skills against the best teams in the world only to have those dreams put on hold from adults competing behind closed doors rather than kids competing on the playing field.

Here's how he tells the story, on his blog, about the team learning that they wouldn't be able to come play baseball in the States:

Then came Wednesday. Each player met at George’s house and brought a parent or guardian. We all went to the US Embassy together. Everyone was expecting it to be easy. They were being handled as a special case. The Ambassador took a photo op with the boys. The paperwork was submitted, and the interviews began. I was inside along with a photographer from the New York Times who was assigned to follow the story. The kids interviews didn’t take long and they came out still excited. Then the parents went in for their interviews. After 3 hours of silence it was pretty clear something wasn’t going right. We ended up staying there well after the embassy was closed, no food, no water. Everyone was tired and hungry and getting concerned. Parents were filing out sporadically seemingly frustrated by the endless questioning. Finally, just as the sun was setting everyone came outside and an official gathered them and told them that they could not issue the visas based on the information submitted. The woman delivering this news was having trouble keeping it together, fighting back the tears.

I was stunned. So was everyone else.

I tried to get a little more information before she went back in but she was not at liberty to discuss visa cases. And that was that.

You can read the whole story in the post Then this happened... (For more on this story, I can also recommend the New York Times articles For Uganda Little Leaguers, Exhilaration and Then Heartbreak and No Little League World Series for Ugandan Team.)

It sounds like Jay Shapiro's love affair with Africa began when he asked his parents for permission to use the money they'd saved for his first trip to Israel and went instead to Ghana. (See Little League World Series: Area Filmmaker's Documentary to be Featured on ESPN.) Shapiro went to Ghana for seven weeks of community service and study, and that trip changed his life. My husband Ethan used to live and work there -- hence the title of his blog, My Heart's in Accra -- and I'm fortunate enough to have traveled there with him twice. I can easily imagine how a first trip to Ghana might have led to being "bitten by the Africa bug" (in the good sense of falling in love with the place, not the bad sense of, you know, malaria.)

Anyway. Jay Shapiro went to Uganda to make a documentary about Little League players there. When they qualified for the Little League World Series, he had already returned to the States to edit his footage, but he returned to Uganda in order to film the kids' trip to the embassy to secure their visas. But what he wound up filming was not what he had expected.

I've had friends who have had difficulty getting a visa to come to the United States to study. I've had friends who got legally married well before they otherwise would have chosen to do, because that was the only way the non-American partner could stay here. But this story is a poignant reminder that visa difficulties impact not only adults, but also kids. These kids had their hearts set on a very particular kind of American dream. But because their parents in many cases didn't have their birth certificates, or appeared to have "fudged" birthdates (many kids in much of the world don't actually know when they were born!), the State Department decided not to let them come and play.

In that second Times article I linked to above, there's a quote from Shapiro:

Shapiro said Little League should require teams attempting to qualify for the World Series to go through a preliminary visa approval process so that there are no last-minute disappointments.  "It's a shame," Shapiro said. "Their country isn’t ready for this. The schools aren't ready. The parents aren't ready. The only thing that’s ready are the kids and their talent. They will make it one day, and if there is anything positive out of this, it's for people to realize what wonderful things are happening with these kids. They've got their own little world growing here."

The verse most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim." Torah also has pretty strong words about caring for the widow and the orphan as well as the stranger among you -- in other words, those who lack privilege and power. This group of kids in Kampala have dedicated themselves to excelling at a game most of their countrymen don't remotely know. They practice with second-hand and donated gear. They play hard. They dream big. But by virtue of being who they are and where they are, these kids have neither privilege nor power, and now their dreams are deferred.

I'll continue to hope that these kids and their families and their local Little League affiliate are able to get the paperwork together before next year, and that this team qualifies for the world series again -- it would be awesome for these kids and for their American counterparts if all of them could meet, interact, and learn from and about one another in the context of the game that they all love.