|Members of Global Friends, a youth basketball team comprised of children of multicultural backgrounds, pose during a training session in Seoul in this 2018 photo. Courtesy of Cheon Soo-gil|
By Lee Hyo-jin
Two high school students are raising funds to save the country's one and only basketball team comprised of teenagers from multicultural backgrounds, which is on the verge of disbandment.
Global Friends, the basketball team based in Seoul's Itaewon, is facing hardship after its only corporate sponsor Hana Tour suspended support this month due to financial difficulties amid the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.
The country's largest tour agency had been supporting the team since 2012.
During that period, over 100 students from multicultural backgrounds have played on the team, engaging in training sessions two times a week and participating in youth basketball tournaments held during vacations.
"We have done our best to continue the sponsorship for the basketball team, which was one of our most meaningful projects. But the suspension was inevitable due to worsened business conditions," a Hana Tour official said.
Wilfred Mgbor, a senior at Yongsan High School, and his friend Eduard Nwike, a senior at Shinheung High School, couldn't just stand by and do nothing when the basketball club that changed their lives in many aspects was in need.
The two began raising money through "Basket Fund," a local fundraising platform, while uploading videos introducing the team and promoting the campaign through social media channels.
"Although I'm currently not on the team, I felt a strong responsibility to do something to help the younger students who are on the team," Mgbor told The Korea Times.
Born to a Nigerian father and Korean mother, he joined the basketball club when he was in the fourth grade of elementary school and played for six years.
"When I first joined the team, to be honest, I felt a little embarrassed during the tournaments because we were the only kids of color and used to be one of the weakest teams back then."
|Eduard Nwike, left, bumps fists with Wilfred Mgbor, while filming a video introducing Global Friends at a cafe in Seoul, Aug. 8. Captured from Basket Fund website|
But as time went by, Mgbor grew his confidence and self-esteem through basketball. Also, interacting with peers from similar backgrounds helped him to see that he was not alone when it came to the difficulties a child from a biracial background can face at school.
"I became a much brighter person which made it easier to hang out with friends at school," he said. "And thanks to the positive changes, I was elected school president this year."
Nwike, who is born to a Nigerian father and Russian mother, said, "I still remember when our team went to summer camps and traveled to other parts of the country to play with other teams. It was fun to hang out with teammates from multicultural backgrounds like me."
He added, "It would be sad to see younger students missing such opportunities if the team gets disbanded."
Their goal is to raise 5 million won ($4,250) by Nov. 8. As of Thursday, they have raised about 1.4 million won.
"We didn't expect people to help us. I feel grateful for my friends and acquaintances who have reached out to help," Nwike said.
"Although the funds won't be able to cover all the expenses needed for the team, which I heard was about 50 million won a year, I hope this money will be able to encourage our coach and the students not to give up," Mgbor said.
Cheon Soo-gil, coach of Global Friends, said, "I'm so proud of the two students and appreciate their efforts."
Cheon, who has been with the team since its launch, said that it is much more than a just a sports club for children. Unlike other youth sports teams requiring membership fees, Global Friends is open for free to any students with biracial backgrounds who wish to learn basketball and make new friends.
"By overcoming the challenges on and off the court, they learn the value of teamwork and feel the sense of belonging surrounded by friends who often share similar difficulties. It also has a big influence on their career pathways, as some students have chosen university majors related to sports."
Although the training sessions are currently suspended due to strict social distancing rules, when it resumes its activities, the team will need money to pay for expenses such as rental fees for courts, uniforms and participation fees for tournaments, according to Cheon.
"It will be tough to run the team with limited help from outside, but I'll try my best not to let the children down."