- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

BLAINE, MINN. (AP) - Josue Alexi has been on the losing end nearly all of his 14-year-old life.

He’s been beaten by poverty. By hunger. And, most recently, by the magnitude-7 earthquake that leveled much of Haiti, his country, in January. Little Josue’s joy was buried underneath the rubble, right next to homes, vehicles and as many as 300,000 people who died.

“Nobody smiled,” said Tony Sanneh, a former Major League Soccer player who traveled to Haiti with the Los Angeles Galaxy in March. “The people were just sad. They were just trying to get by.”

Josue found his smile on the lush, green soccer fields of suburban Minneapolis, thanks to the Galaxy and the Tony Sanneh Foundation, which brought the boy and 14 teammates here to participate in the largest youth soccer tournament in the country.

It only got better for the Haitians as the tournament progressed, culminating with a victory on Saturday for the Schwan’s USA Cup weekend championship in the Gold Flight, which is just one step below the elite level at a tournament that features more than 900 teams.

The 15 boys, all under the age of 15, were winners for the first time in their lives. They danced on the podium as gold medals were draped around their necks and sang songs as they were presented the trophy.

One thing stood out more than any to Stephanie Pereira, a manager for L’Athletique d’Haiti _ they all had smiles on their faces.

“To say it was happiness, it goes beyond that,” Pereira said. “For these kids to smile, it takes a lot.”

Josue and his teammates were able to just be kids for a few weeks and forget about the devastation at home. They arrived in the Twin Cities on July 9 and will start heading home next week to Port-au-Prince. Families here opened their homes, swimming pools and refrigerators to a group of kids who, even before the earthquake, had spent their lives struggling.

“It’s only been four days and we’re already crying tears that they have to leave soon,” said Karen Anderson, a host mother.

Josue and his teammates do not speak English, but smiles are smiles in any language. Speaking of his time in Minnesota, he spoke through a huge, toothy grin.

“They treat me very well and make me very happy,” he said through a translator.

An estimated 1.6 million Port-au-Prince residents remain homeless or living in tarps and tents. Most have no electricity or running water and the rebuilding effort has barely started.

In Minnesota, these kids got a taste of middle class living, PlayStation, air conditioning and Josue’s new favorite food.

“Hot dogs!” he said.

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