Racist tirade galvanizes Coquitlam community

Supporters turn out to say thank you to coach who volunteers to keep Coquitlam kids active, police give a warning but no arrest of 23-year-old man

group of hardy youngsters took part in soccer drills Wednesday afternoon in drizzling rain while a handful of parents watched.

It was a happy scene of play on a dreary day, one that has played out twice weekly this summer in Victoria Park in northeast Coquitlam.

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But in recent weeks, the soccer clinic, led by Uganda native Robert Birungi, has been under a cloud after a man driving an older truck yelled racist slurs at the coach and continued his campaign of intimidation over the weeks, driving on to the sidewalk or hanging out near the field.

“It was disturbing and scary,” said Birungi’s wife, Carli Travers, whose anxiety was heightened by the fact that her sons were also on the soccer field at the time.

The couple, who live in Port Coquitlam and run a charity to support school fees for 350 students in Uganda as well as a childcare centre and housing for orphans, started the drop-in soccer clinic in early-July, accepting only donations to www.abetavu.org in payment.

Over the weeks, generous parents contributed more than $400 towards the African project but, in recent weeks, the number of participants dropped as the man’s campaign of intimidation continued.

Travers is now concerned people will stop bringing their children to play soccer because of the man’s actions.

Coquitlam RCMP police confirmed that a call was received July 31 about a man making racist comments and an investigation has taken place, resulting in a warning to the 23-year-old man of no fixed address. If he returns and exhibits similar behaviour, McLaughlin said, people should call police right away.

“We will do our best to get there quickly and look at the totality of the circumstances and act accordingly,” McLaughlin said. No charges were laid, he said, adding, “Obviously, our community does not tolerate this kind of behaviour”

Still, the racist comments and campaign of intimidation have been worrying. 

Travers’ husband has been saddened by the abuse, Travers said, “This is not what he thought Canada would be.”

As the soccer clinic next to Victoria Hall continued this past Wednesday, after word of the incidents spread following Travers’ Facebook post, supporters began to drop by to give their thanks for the clinic and to offer their support against the verbal attacks.

Wendy Semko, who lives on Westwood Plateau, pressed a $20 bill into Travers’ hand for the Abetavu project, saying, “I was so horrified, this shouldn’t happen.”

Kathryn Millar also turned out to support the soccer program after a rally was hastily organized, saying she hoped to organize a pick-up game with the youngsters with members of a Coquitlam Metro-Ford soccer team she coaches. 

“I was, first of all, shocked,” said Millar upon learning via social media what had happened.

While the rally wasn’t as large as hoped, the parents who did show up were appreciative of the couple for providing Burke Mountain youngsters with a place to play on a rainy afternoon.

Amber Gregory, a community engagement specialist with the United Way of the Lower Mainland, told The Tri-City News that Burke Mountain is short of facilities and programs, especially for seniors and youth, and said the couple’s soccer clinic is just the kind of thing needed to prevent isolation among new residents of the area and to keep children active.

Since the soccer program started, the United Way has been purchasing snacks and pinnies, and hosting special events for the children with funds from the agency’s Hi Neighbour initiative.

When someone makes racists comments, it hurts everyone, Gregory said and she didn’t want the abuse to stop people from coming or discourage Travers and Birungi from volunteering their time.

“It’s nice to see everybody rally behind them,” Gregory said.

Travers expressed gratitude for the support, saying it shows there are good people who want to stand up against racism.

“It’s amazing — I keep telling myself, ‘Don’t cry,’ but it’s happy tears.”

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