No limits: Wheelchair basketball in South Sudan
A new documentary, produced by the ICRC's regional delegation for the United States and Canada, made its small screen debut in Washington DC this week.
No Limits: Wheelchair Basketball in South Sudan portrays the unlikely friendship between two disabled athletes – one from the US and the other from South Sudan – and their improbable journey from Washington DC to Juba in a bid to bring wheelchair basketball to the survivors of war.
The short film features Malat Wei, who fled war-torn southern Sudan at the age of three and was eventually resettled with his mother and four siblings in Houston, Texas in the US.
Malat, whose father went missing at some point during the conflict that divided Sudan for over two decades, is now 25 but he is still reminded daily of the fighting, poverty and disease that his family was forced to escape because, when he was three, he also contracted polio and lost the use of his legs.
"We didn't have no food, we didn't have no clean water. My parents had to go hunt for food," Malat says at the start of the 12-minute documentary, which the ICRC plans to screen in other cities around the world. "It was just a rough life... I woke up in the morning and I was crawling, I couldn't walk."
Before being accepted as refugees in the US, the family lived for about nine years in an Ethiopian displacement camp, where Malat fell in love with sports, spending his long days playing football with his able-bodied friends and using only his hands to navigate the dusty pitch.
"I didn't have a wheelchair. I had to crawl everywhere to get to places," Malat says.
It was in Texas a few years later where he was introduced to wheelchair basketball by a member of his church. He was immediately hooked.
Today, Malat is one of the best competitors in the US and plays university-level wheelchair basketball in Arizona. He also played professionally in France from 2015 to 2016.
"No Limits" tells the story of Malat's first return to South Sudan – a place that wasn't even a country when he left as it only gained independence from Sudan in 2011. His aim was to meet aspiring South Sudanese players and coach them in wheelchair basketball.
A life-changing encounter
Malat was accompanied by Jess Markt, a 42-year-old from Denver, Colorado, who was in a car accident at age 19 that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Previously a college track-and-field star, wheelchair basketball was a major factor in Jess' recovery, both physically and mentally.
He now serves as the ICRC's Diversity, Inclusion and Sports Advisor and has set up programmes that incorporate wheelchair basketball into physical rehabilitation for people living with disabilities in 19 countries, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia and India.
In addition to these services, the ICRC also helps people with disabilities play a full part in society. This includes helping them start small businesses, take vocational training and play sports such as wheelchair basketball and football for amputees.
Malat discovered Jess' coaching work via Facebook a few years ago. The pair later met at a tournament in New Mexico – an encounter that would prove to be life-changing for Malat.
When he learned that Jess was coaching in South Sudan, he pitched the idea of going with him to teach disabled athletes back in his home country how to play. Last November, they did just that, fulfilling Malat's dream of helping his fellow countrymen by bringing the joy of wheelchair basketball to the newest country in the world.
The film includes interviews with Jess and Malat, as well as a South Sudanese player named Daniel and the ICRC's Physical Rehabilitation Programme Manager for South Sudan, Christine Lund.
The interviews are inter-spliced with close-up footage of their trip from freezing DC to sunny Juba, where viewers see them practicing with the aspiring athletes, showing off their professional moves on the court and jostling with each over the ball.
While "No Limits" is definitely a film about the power of sports to transform individuals and the societies they live in, it is also a film about rediscovering home.
At one stage, Malat looks out the airplane window with a broad grin on his handsome face and is speechless as he peers at the African landscape below.
At Tuesday's screening, Malat and Jess, who took part in a Q&A moderated by Adaptive Sports Advocate and Inclusion Consultant, Mia Ives-Rublee, were quick to point out that the players' commitment to wheelchair basketball was so strong that
Daniel, who was suffering from an unusually bad bout of malaria symptoms one day, came to the court anyway so that he wouldn't miss a thing.
"Some of the players were coming from displacement camps to the court. Their lives are still fully impacted by armed conflict," Jess told the audience. "That's how powerful the draw of sport is."
Malat added, "I see myself in those players. If I hadn't come to the US, I don't know how things would be for me."
More than four million people have been forced from their homes as a result of the six-year-old conflict in South Sudan, a country that is deeply divided along ethnic and tribal lines.
"One of the goals of this program is to overcome a lot of the political and social divisions that are so pervasive in this country," explains Jess. "If we're going to show that, then, really, the players should be working together not just competing against each other on a tribal or regional basis."
Since their first trip, the number of female wheelchair basketball athletes in South Sudan has increased from one, who is briefly seen in the film, to 14, and there are now three cities in the country where people can get on the court – both exciting developments.
As the documentary depicts, this exciting chapter in Malat's life has only just begun. He and Jess plan to return to Juba in November to see how the players have progressed.
Malat will take on the role of lead coach during their visit.