PHOTOS: For Refugee Youth, Soccer Provides a Common Language

18-year-old Milton, center, laughs as he and his partner pass the ball between them using their heads during a dribbling drill. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

At 9:30 a.m. the sun was already high above the Cesar Chavez field in East Oakland where kids, sporting their favorite soccer jerseys, slathered themselves in sunscreen. They sat in circles, divided by age, and shouted out their names and which countries they were born in. “Guatemala,” “Afghanistan,” “Congo,” they announced.

Some giggled and joked with their friends, while others sat quietly and waited their turn. This was the first day of soccer camp, an annual week-long program organized by Soccer Without Borders (SWB), and the kids were ready to jump into the game.

Soccer Without Borders, an Oakland-based non-profit founded in 2006, uses soccer as a tool to help young refugees, asylees and newcomers make friends, gain confidence at school and build English language skills.

Each summer more than 150 children between the ages of 5 and 20 participate in the camp. During the academic year, SWB also provides kids with after school club soccer teams at six East Bay middle schools and high schools. Since it first began, the organization has expanded to four other cities in the U.S. as well as Uganda and Nicaragua.

According to Ben Guicciardi, the organization’s founder and director of the Oakland program, newcomer youth need help with learning English, obtaining family stability and getting the chance to enjoy their adolescence. For many of them, especially older boys and unaccompanied minors, “there’s just not the opportunity to just get to be a kid,” he said.

Sponsored

But soccer is an accessible, low-cost and familiar way for these young people to connect with one another. “It’s also a common language,” said Guicciardi. The camp typically has kids from 20-30 different countries speaking languages ranging from Spanish to Dari to Korean. “It’s something that appeals to all of them.”

For 13-year-old Sohrab, who was born in Afghanistan and has been in the program for three years, SWB is about having fun and becoming comfortable with English. “When I came here first, I didn’t know how to speak English and everyone used to talk to me, make fun of me in the school,” he said, “Now, I’m happy.”

The program places an emphasis on inclusion and celebrating the cultures that each child brings with them. Creating a "safe space" is one of the five rules for soccer camp outlined in the introduction circle.

“I like this program because they know that you’re coming from other countries and they’re treating you like a friend, like a brother,” said Gerardo Mercado, a volunteer coach and graduate of the program, who immigrated from El Salvador in 2013.

For others, SWB gives youth a place to be themselves and combat the isolation many feel upon arrival.

Saliem Fikadu, another camp volunteer and alum, who immigrated from Eritrea in 2014, said soccer helps her focus and gives her an outlet for frustrations in her life. “When you kick the ball, all your problems go away,” she said. “We're from different countries, we all have different stories, but in soccer we are the same.”

Carson McFadden, an Oakland program coordinator, welcomes the middle school girls' group. Camp begins with teams sitting in circles on the field with their coaches to introduce themselves and go over plans for the week. This is an opportunity for coaches to go over the camp rules which include creating a safe space, respecting each other and using English as the common language when possible.
Boys laugh during introductions in the morning circle. Each child was asked to give their name, age and country of origin when introducing themselves. The majority of participants have been in the U.S for less than 5 years with some arriving just weeks ago. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)
16-year-old Sandy, left, attempts to keep the ball away from Monica, 14. For some participants, soccer camp is an opportunity to try a new activity while for others, like Sandy, the game has always played a large role in their lives. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)
Pawlay, 15, leads the high school girls team in a stretch before beginning dribbling drills on the first day of camp. On each day of camp, the teams will focus on different skills with a combination of drills, scrimmages, games and exercises. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)
Doh, 10, and Kekoa, 11, play rock, paper, scissors in order to decide who will play goalie in the next round of shooting drills. SWB school-year programming is only for middle and high school students, but the camp allows children as young as 5 to participate. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)
The kids stay busy throughout the day with drills, scrimmages and games but look for opportunities to sneak a look at their phones in between activities. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)
The high school boys group attempt a dribbling exercise where they are required to keep the ball in the circle and hold hands while crossing the field. A large emphasis is placed on team-building and helping the participants connect with one another through sport. "There’s very few things that you could do that people from all these different cultures and communities would be like, ‘Oh I like that and I know that.’ I really can’t think of anything besides soccer," said Guicciardi. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)
Children from more than 30 countries participate in the week-long camp including many from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  Learning English together and sharing their cultures is a big draw for the diverse group. "We made friends from all countries," said 13-year-old Sohrab. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)
19-year old Brandon hugs his coach, Omar Ramirez, at the end of practice. Ramirez passed through the program himself after immigrating from Mexico and is now a coach. For many participants, Soccer Without Borders can feel like family. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)