Challengers Volleyball Club: Pushing integration and inclusion

Jesus Limpio (right), men's captain of Challengers Volleyball Club, in a practice match at Saith Park, Chaguanas. - Marvin Hamilton
Jesus Limpio (right), men's captain of Challengers Volleyball Club, in a practice match at Saith Park, Chaguanas. - Marvin Hamilton

THE CHALLENGERS volleyball club has existed in Trinidad and Tobago since 1997 but continues to live up to its name. It is now challenging xenophobia and providing non-TT nationals with the opportunity to play and compete in the sport they love.

The team is based at Saith Park, Chaguanas and coach Kanhai "Perry" Sirjoo told Newsday he's been involved in volleyball for over 25 years.

He has coached national teams locally and in Grenada, but being in the right place at the right time in 2019 created yet another coaching opportunity for him. He now coaches teams of Venezuelans who live in TT.

"I had on a jersey marked Perry Volleyball and the (current) captain– Jesus Limpio – number four met me in the bank and he told me he liked my jersey. I told him (that) I don’t share my jersey and it's a volleyball jersey. Then he told me he plays.

"I said, 'I've never seen you play volleyball. Where are you from?' and he said he's from Venezuela but lives in TT. So I said, 'I have a team, do you want to come and play?'"

Limpio told Newsday he was ecstatic, especially after being rejected by several teams he and his friends attempted to join. The 35-year-old has been living in TT since 2010.

"I've been playing volleyball since I was ten. I played with the state team (in Venezuela), regional games, and at a national and professional level.

"I tried to join the sport here and I found closed doors. I wasn’t accepted."

The teams he approached only wanted TT nationals, with some coaches telling him and his friends they'd be leaving soon anyway so why waste their time.

Sirjoo said he was saddened after he heard the players' stories, and immediately wrote to the Ministry of Sport, TT Olympic Committee and the FIVB (International Volleyball Federation).

"I wanted non-nationals to be able to play in national leagues so I asked if they can open doors for that particular programme.

"They said, 'How many players do you have?' and I said, 'I have a team'."

After waiting for some time, Sirjoo wrote again and got a glimmer of hope when he was told negotiations had begun.

Mariany Villasana, women's captain of Challengers Volleyball Club. - Marvin Hamilton

Limpio said he and his friends were so happy that they threw a party to celebrate.

Sirjoo said he started off the team with only a handful of men and now, there are around 29 male players. Eventually, he was also approached by several women who were also interested.

He trains players from as young as five years old.

Mariany Villasana, 27, captain of the women's team said she heard about the team through her husband and friends. She's been playing volleyball since she was 14.

"We tried, everyone liked it and we felt like we could do a good job," she said. "When you love something, you enjoy when you do it and I love it."

The team won gold in the National Development Open Tournament in 2019 and 2022.

Sirjoo said, "One day the news spread there is a Venezuelan volleyball team and I got a call from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). They told me they want to do a programme with us and see where they can help.

"We got sneakers, uniforms...I am so proud of all of these athletes and working with this team. Each of them are registered and legally in this country, some of them played at the highest level in Venezuela and I just want them to be treated fairly."

In addition to this, the UNHCR will be releasing a documentary about the team in July done by filmmaker Rhonda Chan Soo.

Filmmaker Rhonda Chan Soo (centre) and two members of her crew at Saith Park, Chaguanas. - Marvin Hamilton

She told Newsday the experience was an emotional one but she sees the value in and outlet the sport provides for the athletes.

"I hope that the film can help to provide some insight into the challenges faced by the Venezuelan community in TT. I really want it to have an impact and hope it leads to a lot of conversations and discussions."

Sirjoo said though he usually opted out of TV interviews since he's not a fan of being behind the camera, he welcomed the opportunity for the film.

"I still smile about it because they all work very hard. It's always a pleasure to coach them."

UNHCR's communications and public information associate Carla Bridglal told Newsday it is the agency's privilege to tell the story.

"Sport is a powerful tool for integration and inclusion. UNHCR is so proud of the Challengers and the passion, drive and talent of these players and of course, coach Perry who saw their potential.

"We hope that this film inspires and informs all who look at it to better understand and appreciate the experience of refugees and migrants in TT."


"Challengers Volleyball Club: Pushing integration and inclusion"

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