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Embracing Refugee Youths With Soccer

Mike Koperda believes soccer can provide continuity, structure, and support to those who have had their lives turned up side-down.

What would happen if you took 10,000 refugees from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and resettled them in a small, rust belt town in upstate New York? It would be a tough adjustment. You'd have to find the newcomers jobs and housing, but you'd also have to assimilate somehow people from a broad range of cultures and languages.

Utica, a dilapidated town on the Erie Canal, lost half its population in the late 20th century with a regional decline in manufacturing. Thanks to an influx of refugees — now about one in six residents, the town's population has stabilized, and some once-ailing local companies have been revived by the incoming labor pool.

But Utica is no dream destination. Many newcomers are afraid of their gang-infested neighborhoods and school, not to mention the harsh winters and alien language and culture.

Most of the refugees are children and youths, coming of age while struggling to meet the standards of both American culture and traditional parents. Workers at the local refugee center say bridging this cultural gap is extremely stressful, and refugee youths too often lack the support they need. The center itself is losing the little funding they had for youth programming.

There is, however, one place in Utica where some refugee youths feel very much at home.

Drop by the Utica high school field any summer evening and you will find yourself in a whirl of languages and accents. Bosnian, Burmese, Somali Bantu, Haitian, Salvadoran, and Jamaican boys from their pre-teens into their 40's turn out to play pickup soccer here.

The games are usually Bosnians against everyone else because they outnumber the rest, and their white skin distinguishes them as a team. The other side is a mix of old and new arrivals and communication in English can be a challenge.

But something happens on this field. Many immigrants and refugees here call soccer the one reliable joy in a transient and difficult life. But also, in this depressed town, soccer brings together those who might otherwise live in isolation from one another. Before, during, and after games, players ask each other where they learned to play soccer, what the rules are in their country, and what the conditions were. Suddenly, in spite of language challenges, Asians, Africans, Europeans, and Latin Americans are becoming friends.

Among the regulars is Abdi Ibrahim, a handsome 21-year-old Bantu who fled Somalia with his family at age seven, when civil war struck his village. They lived in refugee camps in Kenya until coming to Utica just over a year ago.

In Kenya, Ibrahim had nightmares about the violence in Somalia. And during the day, he worried about not having enough to eat. But the anxiety vanished every afternoon when he played soccer, even though it was often in the heat, on rocky ground, without shoes, and on an empty stomach.

"We always had energy to play soccer because that was how we were able to forget the things that had happened to us," he said. "If you stay in the house, you're going to think a lot, that you're hungry, that you don't have anything to eat."

Ibrahim believes soccer plays another lofty goal. "I say soccer is a tool for peace," he said, and he was not spouting a hollow cliché. Until just over a year ago, Ibrahim was using this tool at the multi-ethnic and often violent refugee camp of Kakuma in Kenya, where he was a coach and organized matches between warring clans.

"We built these young soccer teams in order to bring all of the youths together, because if we usually fought by guns, this time we were all going to fight for the ball," he said. "That's how people got friendly. We got to know each other."

In Utica, there is no clan warfare, but soccer does bring together groups that generally do not interact, and Ibrahim believes forging this kind of connection with the community can provide a safety net.

"I know a lot of guys, I just met them on the soccer field," he said. "I have to at least know some people, so if something goes wrong with me, they can help me, or I can help them."

A Soccer 'Goldmine'

On Sunday mornings, Ibrahim attends the refugee youth practices of coach Mike Koperda.

Koperda, a 47-year-old Utica native, owns a year-round soccer club and coaches teen and pre-teen boys and girls.

It costs $3,000 a year to play on one of Koperda's seven teams, but a few years ago, he began to waive the fees and cover the costs for those unable to pay, and this year, he began to recruit refugees.

When transportation is available, up to 60 kids — mostly Somali Bantu and Burmese Karens — turn out for the weekly practice, and Koperda watches, riveted, leading training exercises and providing pointers, but also figuring out whom to recruit onto his teams. Burmese and Somali translators volunteer to help out.

Koperda calls the pool of refugee players a "goldmine." Not only did many of them play every day on the camps; some played with the very best. Win Zaw, a 14-year-old Burmese team member, lived on a camp in Thailand with members of the Burmese national team and played with them regularly.

Today, there are four refugees on Koperda's under-15 boys' team. The team lost only three of 23 games this summer, and the four refugees scored most of the team's 94 goals.

But beyond mining for gold, Koperda believes he is providing a service to both the refugee players and the locals in his club.

Koperda's local players and their parents say they are excited about the cultural exposure they are getting. Some, like 10-year-old Marie Miller and her 14-year-old brother Paul, never knew the meaning of the word "refugee" before.

Now they understand on a personal level. They know their teammates have had some bad experiences. They also know that life still isn't easy. Carpooling, they see the run-down neighborhoods their teammates live in, and they helped deliver donated clothes and furniture to the empty apartment one teammate shared with seven family members.

Utica's refugee center has announced that 120 more Burmese families will be resettled in the area within the next few months, and Koperda looks forward to the recruiting possibilities. His dream is to help talented youths get athletic scholarships to college. But more than that, he is driven by a belief that soccer can provide continuity, structure, and support to those who have had their lives turned up side-down.

"They found out about me through a flyer or word of mouth," he said of the refugees who come to his practices. "And really the only word they had to hear was 'soccer,' and that was enough to inspire them. That was enough to allow them to feel that they're home even though they're half way around the world."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Amy Bracken.

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