PORT-AU-PRINCE (AlertNet) - Former Haitian soccer star Boby Duval has spent most of his life fighting on and off the pitch.
In the mid-1970s, he battled near death from starvation during a 17-month stint in Haiti's Fort Dimanche, a notorious prison which served as a torture centre during the dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude.
Tortured and placed for a while in solitary confinement, Duval witnessed the deaths of fellow rights activists, who dared to speak out against the Duvalier regime. The political prisoners had been beaten to death with clubs in the fetid 13 feet by 14 feet cells they shared with up to 40 others.
After his release, Duval, who played for Violette soccer club, one of Haiti's most successful teams, turned again to sport, converting a wasteland near Cite Soleil, a slum on the edge of the capital Port-au-Prince, into a youth sports centre.
"We are in an area most Haitians don't want to see at all or know about," Duval, 58, told AlertNet.
"There are two worlds in Haiti. You have the very rich, who have kind of everything and you have the very poor who basically don't have anything."
One of the aims of the centre - L'Athletique d'Haiti - is to provide children with a free education in a country where around 90 percent of schools are private and 50 percent of children do not attend primary school.
But an equally important goal is to use sports to teach some of the city's most deprived children life skills and basic values such as tolerance and teamwork.
Since 1996, the sports centre has been Duval's way of struggling against what he says is widespread indifference among Haitian society to the country's poor.
Eight of out 10 Haitians live on less than $2 a day.
"I've had a privileged background. I've travelled and seen the world," said Duval, whose businessman father sent him to Canada and the United States to study.
"I've always felt a responsibility to give it back."
As the bell rings to signal the end of the school day, around 200 pupils dressed in blue shirts, and girls sporting white ribbons in their hair, pour out of the brightly painted large tents that serve as classrooms.
Along with free schooling, children receive basic healthcare, hot meals and coaching in sports such as soccer in the open grass fields. Basketball, karate and boxing in a shaded ring are also on offer.
It's a safe haven for the children who live in the nearby slums.
"Their parents have given them everything they possibly can," Duval noted.
What parents cannot give, Duval sees as his responsibility to help provide.
"I believe you can teach values of self-esteem, tolerance, teamwork and respect through sports," Duval said. "Playing a sport, you learn the rules of the game, you develop discipline and self-esteem."
One of Duval's favourite teaching drills is to get boys and girls to play soccer together - except only the girls are allowed to score goals. Another is to make teams play in pairs, tied together at the wrist, a tactic that soon instills the importance of teamwork, he said.
It is the kind of training that has helped the club's boys and girls soccer teams win local and international competitions, Duval said, as he proudly pointed to a shelf cluttered with silver cups and medals in his otherwise bare office.
Duval, a stocky man whose voice is as big as his frame, also sees sport as a way of breaking down Haiti's highly stratified society and narrowing the gap between its social classes.
Amid raised eyebrows, Duval has over the years organised soccer tournaments where teams from Port-au-Prince's wealthier neighourhoods and private schools play against L'Athletique d'Haiti.
Against the odds, Duval has kept the sports centre running through years of political turmoil.
More recently, the sports grounds served as a refuge for around 30,000 Haitians, who had lost their homes during the 2010 earthquake.
Duval's latest education programme targets 400 young adults, aged from 16 to 24 years old. It is designed to help them get jobs or encourage them to keep studying.
Through soccer, other sports and workshops, they are taught life and jobs skills and the programme helps place students on work experience and internships.
"There is no system for these kids. We knock on doors for them. We are trying to give them a hand. To lift them up," Duval said passionately.
"It's like a very opaque ceiling they have to break. We try to help them break that ceiling, but not break it in a violent manner – rather by giving them the tools and the know-how."
Getting a job in Haiti, though, is a near-impossible feat.
Despite government promises of creating more jobs, around 70 percent of Haitians remain either unemployed or underemployed.
"The kids know the reality on the streets. They have a school diploma, some have been to college but they can't find jobs. They start doubting whether they can get somewhere. They are really hurting," Duval said.
Still, for 17-year-old Floriant Dieulet, the three-month course has raised his confidence and self-awareness.
"I've discovered things I didn't know about myself, good things too. I've realised I'm a good communicator," he said.
Meanwhile, Duval continues his fight to raise the $20,000 or so a month he needs to keep the sports centre going, which has grown to cater for around 1,500 children.
"There's no choice," Duval said. "We have to keep going and serve these kids."
(Editing by Katie Nguyen)