Cristian Benitez in action for Nelson College’s First XI this season. Photo: Evan Barnes/Shuttersport.

Finding refuge in football

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At just 14, Cristian Benitez dropped out of school and spent three years washing cars to support his family.

Now the former Columbian refugee is living his dream, playing football while he gets an education.

The 19-year-old moved to Nelson with his family 18 months ago from Ecuador, where they had spent three years struggling to get by.

“It was a hard time for me and my family,” says Cristian. “But then I came to New Zealand and realized everything was different, the food, the people, everything. I love Nelson, life is a lot better.”

In Ecuador, Cristian took on a full-time job. His father, a builder, struggled to get by on low wages while his mother stayed at home with his younger sister.

“I started to work which was hard because I was still young, the pay was low, and it was hard for my parents.”

Cristian made the sacrifice so his two younger brothers could stay in school.

Political strife in Colombia forced his family to seek refuge in neighbouring Ecuador. An estimated 360,000 Colombians remain living as refugees, mostly in Ecuador, after being forced out of their homes by a civil war which has been raging since the 1960s and displaced millions.

Now attending Nelson College, Cristian is learning English, studying NCEA and making a huge impression on the sporting scene.

Coach Davor Tavich says the striker has been an integral part of the 1st XI’s success.

“He has made a big difference, he is a big, strong lad and works very hard. He has scored a few goals lately and found some great form, he is getting better and better every week.”

Davor says, as well as a gifted footballer, Cristian is also a very nice young man and has fitted in seamlessly with the team.

“He has been welcomed by everybody and his English is very good, the boys enjoy having him around. He’s humble, he brings the quality of a young man who has been through a lot in his young life.”

After an unstable beginning to his life, Cristian says he plans to stay in Nelson.

“I want to stay here and create a life for me and my family.”

Undecided on a career at this point, Cristian says he will focus on his education and improving his English.

Cristian’s success on the football field has also inspired his younger brothers to take up the sport and he backs them to follow his path into the 1st XI. “They are my biggest fans and we love each other and support each other.”

Cristian has been playing football all his life, admitting the level is a little higher in football-mad Columbia.

Cristian says it was hard to leave his friends and his football team. He was at the time playing for América de Cali, in the National U12 league.

“It was the highest level I could be playing at, so I was very proud, and it was hard to go.”

However, Cristian says as long as he had a ball, he could make a place home.

“Football is like a language for me, everywhere I go I just play football and I make friends, which is amazing.”