For many young soccer enthusiasts, playing the game means everything, even moving across the country to attend a prestigious soccer academy with abundant resources. At the R & F soccer school in Meizhou, in the Guangdong province in Southeast China, children from the ages of seven to 14 undergo extensive training while studying with the hopes of becoming part of the next generation of great soccer players. Attending the school are Uyghur children from the Xinjiang region in Northwestern China that is predominately muslim. For them, it’s more than just playing soccer: it’s also the first time they’re being exposed to a different culture and asked to learn a new language while retaining their faith.
“They are far from home and their parents and they come to a place which is thousands of kilometers away from home to learn and struggle for their soccer dream,” photographer Yuyang Liu tells TIME. “These young children live in Meizhou and they try to fit in here and make friends despite various obstacles such as weather and language.” One of the children that stood out was Muradil, an eight-year old student from Ghulja in western Xinjiang. Liu mentions that Muradil’s aspirations include going to Brazil and becoming a star like his idol Lionel Messi.
Although Liu visited the school on two different occasions, the project itself took six months to complete. Liu’s work of the soccer school, titled On the Court Uyghur Dreams Grow, was part of the Magnum Foundation’s “What Works” project where nine former Magnum Foundation fellows were asked to come up with a concept of storytelling that displays hints of kindness and humanity in a society that seems devoid of any.
“For me, being one part of a global project means more than a personal experience,” Liu says. “It’s more like an experiment to explore how people are taking risks to come together. The world has lots of problems, but we’re looking for some solutions to the difficult problems which we’re facing right now and impact the world.”
Liu explains the value of the program for the Uyghur students as tensions in Xinjiang involving the Uyghur people and the mainstream Chinese government in recent years have led to massive protests, riots and violent altercations. “I think it’s important for the kids to have a platform chasing their dreams in soccer as violent incidents since 2009 have exacerbated the gap and mistrust between nationalities,” he says. “The learning experience of the Uyghur players has become a miniature of the communication and integration between nationalities.”
Yuyang Liu is a photographer based in China. Liu is a former Magnum Fellow of the Magnum Foundation. On the Court Uyghur Dreams Grow, is part of the What Works Project featured at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City.
Bianca Silva is a writer and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter.