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A refugee soccer player in an orange tank top juggling a soccer ball on an empty field in Houston. Sean Archibong, reVision FC

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A common goal

How young refugees find belonging and opportunity through soccer.

Warshan Hussin is a new kid in Baltimore. He’s a native Iraqi by way of Syria. He’s lonely. And he really hates the kid speaking English.

He is sitting in his seventh-grade class, unable to say a word. Nothing. His family arrived in 2007 through a refugee resettlement program, almost four years after leaving Iraq.

He’s looking around the room, hoping he can find some way to communicate. Maybe someone speaks his language. Maybe English actually isn’t hard at all and he can pick it up in the next 30 minutes. Maybe he’s a language prodigy. Maybe the other kids are just as behind as he is in learning his new country’s primary language. He is in Moravia after all, one of Baltimore’s most diverse neighborhoods. There are kids at his school from all over the world.

Nope. Plenty of his classmates speak English just fine. Especially this one kid. Like many kids at the school, he’s a refugee, but he’s communicating effortlessly with everyone, including the teacher. Yet another refugee who seems light years ahead, Hussin thinks.

Hussin’s experience isn’t unique. Isolation and culture shock are normal for kids coming to a new country — heck, they’re normal for kids moving across town. But in addition to the new kid awkwardness, refugees also face the challenge of overcoming language and financial barriers.

There is no easy way to immigrate to a new country, but finding common interests with others when you feel like you’re an island goes a long way. Fortunately, for a large percentage of refugee children who enter the United States each year, they share a game.

Shortly after his first day in school, Hussin went to a meeting of the Baltimore chapter of Soccer Without Borders. It happened to be the organization’s first-ever meeting, making it one of the few things that had been in the city for less time than him.

But Hussin didn’t know that. He just knew that someone had brought a few soccer balls to a field in Moravia. It seemed like a good time. Until he realized that kid, the one speaking circles around him in class, was there too.

“Shit.” he thought. “Not this kid again.”

Soccer Without Borders began in Oakland in 2006. Former Lehigh University soccer player Ben Gucciardi founded the organization after writing his master’s thesis on sports as a vehicle for social change. SWB began as a small, well-received day camp in Oakland that hosted soccer, dancing and nutrition education. It now serves four American cities and more than 1,900 participants. The Oakland chapter alone works with more than 400 refugees from 38 different countries that speak 23 separate languages. Participants in the organization boast a 95 percent high school graduation rate, compared to the Oakland average of 60 percent.

Soccer Without Borders founder Ben Gucciardi smiling on a bench with an athlete in front of a chainlink fence.
Soccer Without Borders founder Ben Gucciardi, left, with an athlete.
Balazs Gardi, via Soccer Without Borders - Oakland

“In the communities where our kids are, there’s just not a lot of support. A lot of our kids don’t have their full families here. A lot of them have undergone some really intense situations,” Gucciardi said. “So just having that space where there’s somebody that takes care of them … I underestimated the power of that alone.”

With the help of community partners like Albany-Berkeley Soccer Club, SWB has given refugee kids that space. The organization develops English language skills through games and lessons, requires students to meet classroom performance standards before they can compete on the field, and helps facilitate post-secondary education.

Gucciardi once found out a promising student and player within SWB hadn’t taken the SAT. He helped the player sign up, drove the student to and from the testing center, then called a coach from a local university. The player got a good test score and a scouting session. A scholarship followed.

“The kids are super bright. They’re super talented. And if there’s somebody who’s kind of advocating for them the same way that I had advocates for me, then they can access these other opportunities,” Gucciardi said.

Kids like Yohannes Harish have made the most of those opportunities.

Harish is 25 now, but he came to Oakland as a 14-year-old by way of Kenya and Eritrea. His mother had left for the United States when he was five, and they spent 11 years apart before reuniting in Oakland. Harish’s transition to the United States was a challenge, but soccer helped him face it head on.

After joining Soccer Without Borders, Harish picked up English quickly. He became captain of the team and class salutatorian at Oakland International High School. He found a spot on the team at nearby Division II Holy Names University and was named captain there, too.

“It kind of felt lonely [when I moved to the U.S.] because I couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know the culture as much and didn’t have many friends,” Harish says. “When you first come, it just feels like you’re on your own. And then when you see that there are people going through the same thing. It just makes you feel better and that you just need to keep working and keep pushing.”

Now Harish plays for the Oakland Roots, a first-year National Premier Soccer League team in the city he calls his home away from home. He wears No. 91 in honor of the year of Eritrean independence.

The kid from Hussin’s class, the outgoing one who appeared at the same Soccer Without Borders meeting, is named Glory. He came to Maryland as a Congolese refugee at about the same time as Hussin.

The day after Hussin’s first practice with SWB, Glory recognized Hussin in class. He also saw Hussin hadn’t organized his new binder yet.

“He took my stuff and put it in there, and to me, that stood out because I know he remembered me from practice. I know I remembered him,” Hussin said.

That simple gesture brought them closer together. After hours of school, soccer practice and English lessons, the pair became best friends.

“We had a really good friendship because, basically, I learned English speaking to Glory because I wasn’t afraid of talking to him,” Hussin said. “I didn’t know how to talk, but he wouldn’t make fun of me because he was in the same boat.”

Two refugee soccer players in Houston wearing orange tank tops. The player on the right is in the midst of attempting a rainbow kick while the player on the left defends him. Sean Archibong, reVision FC

Soccer Without Borders uses the game as its primary link to the refugee populations it serves; others use the game as one among many tools.

In and around Atlanta, New American Pathways helps resettle, stabilize and improve the lives of Georgia refugees through a number of initiatives, including an after-school program for elementary and middle school-aged kids.

“We have a student survey that the kids fill out at the end of the year,” NAP’s Middle School Coordinator Caitlin Barrow said. “When we asked them, ‘What’s your favorite part of the program?’ A lot of them are coming for the soccer and happened to get the literacy or the academic help. They know they have to complete that part of the program before they can go outside.”

New American Pathways’ after-school programming encompasses nearly 175 students at three Atlanta-adjacent Dekalb County schools. That service is vital to the area’s growing refugee population. Georgia annually welcomes 2,500 to 3,000 newly-arrived refugees, according to the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies. And within DeKalb County, refugees make up three percent of the student body.

Every weekday, the three schools provide participating students a snack, a lesson, homework help and, of course, soccer.

The sport has permeated almost every aspect of afterschool programs. For example, teachers show yellow cards as a warning to misbehaving students, and red cards when the warnings have ended. Even when it involves discipline, the shared language of soccer helps students and teachers build trusting relationships.

“I remember when I first started and I played soccer with the kids. I instantly gained respect, maybe some street cred that comes from the idea that ‘she kinda knows what she’s talking about,’” elementary program coordinator Caroline Miller said. “To me, it went hand in hand. It was the thought that, ‘Oh they think their teachers are cool and they respect me and they want to listen to me because I’m also helping them with their soccer skills.’”

The instructors at New American Pathways say after-school soccer helps break up cliques, and develop skills that go far beyond the classroom. On top of that, the kids also play some damn good soccer.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Barrow said. “Last year they put the middle school students against other rec teams and it was just like not fair to the other teams. The other kids are so disheartened by the end.”

Some teachers have been forced to relinquish their names. Winston Persaud used to go by ”Mr. Persaud” when he was the lead teacher with the middle school program in 2018. Now he is known to his students as “Coach.”

Persaud has amassed a substantial collection of international jerseys over the years as a former high school player and long-time soccer fan, enough to wear a different one to class every day. So that’s what he did.

The jerseys led to conversations with his young refugee pupils, and those conversations led to relationships. That ultimately led to Persaud becoming a pro-bono coach during daily pickup games, but that was fine by him. It’s all in the name of giving students a strong educational foundation.

“A lot of these kids they’ve had interrupted schooling. A lot of them carry trauma. Combining something with academic support and athletic participation is huge,” Persaud said. “It’s a program of social education. Whether it’s English skills or building empathy through soccer. These things are essential for success in our very complicated interconnected society.”

Soccer doesn’t have to be solely an educational tool, however. Often, it is a much needed release: a space to feel belonging, and a space to cry.

In Houston, there’s been some crying.

At least for a few kids. By itself, that’s an accomplishment. It’s hard to get teenagers to cry in front of each other, even those who aren’t from one of Houston’s toughest areas.

But the larger accomplishment is how the kids have come together in the first place.

Fifteen kids, each an ocean away from their first homes, have been brought into the space that will become their locker room. They’ve been sat down. And they’ve been told they’ve made a soccer team. Not that they’ve gone through a tryout process, been evaluated and selected, but that their Sunday pickup group has become an actual, honest-to-goodness, team.

At first, there wasn’t even soccer. ReVision is an organization dedicated to creating positive outcomes for Houston’s most at-risk kids.

It operates out of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in the southwest part of the city, which is densely populated with resettled immigrants. The vacant lot in the back of the church gave the organization an easy way to reach its neighbors.

A soccer ball plus empty space equals a gathering.

“I decided to just stand out on the field on Sunday afternoons after church and invite high school age kids to come and play pickup games,” reVision CEO Charles Rotramel said. “We thought it was a good way to introduce us to kids and introduce kids to our new field and just see what happened.”

Here’s what happened: Kids showed up, all refugees, and they were very good with a ball at their feet.

They kept showing up Sunday after Sunday, more and more kids. They made difficult moves look easy. Rotramel, a soccer coach since 2007, gave them pointers on tactics and technique. Eventually, the talent outgrew the confines of the makeshift pitch. Rotramel believed the kids were ready for bigger challenges.

He invited a friend, a high-ranking member of Houston Dynamo’s youth academy, to come to the field one Sunday afternoon. Just to watch. Just to make sure Rotramel wasn’t imagining things.

The game started. About a minute passed.

“Charles,” the friend said. “These kids are amazing.”

The next day, Rotramel called the players into their future locker room. They were the first members of reVision FC.

The team began playing in the South Texas Youth Soccer Association’s U-19 level in April 2017. Positive results didn’t come quickly. It spent the entire summer losing. But eventually, talent and passion turned into wins. The team got better. Exponentially better. The next year, despite a massive disadvantage in funding and resources, reVision FC won the state championship in Texas’ second-highest level of club competition.

The group’s effort earned them much more than a trophy. Afterwards, six reVision FC players signed to play at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Missouri.

Three men on a soccer field. On the far left, a coach is smiling at the camera while holding a binder. On the right, Warshan Hussin has his arm around a player who is wearing a yellow jersey.
Warshan Hussin, far right, coaching for Soccer Without Borders.
Via Warshan Hussin

Stories from organizations like reVision FC, New American Pathways and Soccer Without Borders show refugees that there’s a direct path to building a future in the United States. They are reminders of how much a game can empower people. Take Hussin, for example.

The kid who felt lost in school not only learned English, but went on to become captain of his SWB and high school team. He graduated from Digital Harbor High School in 2015 with honors and moved on to play collegiate soccer at Stevenson University in Baltimore.

“I think, most importantly, it gave us a safe place and especially getting placed in Baltimore,” Hussin said. “I think especially as a kid at that 14, 15, 16 age, we’re all just growing right now when we just want to explore everything. Coming here in a free country when you can do whatever you want, drugs, gangs, all that stuff, it’s literally right there in front of you as a kid. I think it kept a lot of us away from that stuff to do something that we love.”

Hussin is now finishing up his degree and coaching one of Soccer Without Borders’ many teams. He says it’s a blessing to be able to use soccer to mentor kids facing the same challenges he did not long ago.

“It’s like stress relief, you know?” Hussin said. “Just putting that smile on these kids’ faces. It’s basically telling them that four or five years ago, I was just where you guys are right now. It’s going to be OK. I made it. A lot of people made it. You’re going to learn English. It’s going to get better. It’s going to get a lot better.”

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