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These young refugees are finding their way in America through soccer

youth soccer refugees
Posted at 10:21 AM, Jan 27, 2023

Soccer is often called a universal language. Nowhere is that more true than when you pass through the doors of a Soccer Without Borders hub.

“It sounds so cliché, but it’s the world’s sport,” said Kat Sipes, program manager for the Maryland Hub in Baltimore.

Sipes grew up playing soccer and played through college. Now, she spends her days working with youth of all ages to pass on her soccer knowledge.

“Sport, in general, just has this power over people, and it builds community,” Sipes added.

And building community is what Soccer Without Borders is all about. The organization, established in 2006, works to serve young refugees and immigrants. These “newcomer students” often need additional help learning English, so Soccer Without Borders offers a number of different after-school programs aimed at bridging that gap.

“We know when it comes down to learning a new language, having a safe space where you can comfortably practice that new language is paramount to learning,” said Nick Brooks, program manager. “It’s incredible how much confidence a young person can have, and how much that can be veiled under fear and hesitancy because they don’t speak a native language.”

In addition to academic programs, the organization integrates language learning into soccer practices. For instance, including a “Word of the Day” and practicing language skills with drills.

“The more fun aspect is building language into games, so if it’s directional of just using left and right, and being able to demonstrate and show which direction it is,” said Sipes. “That’s a very simple way to get directions into their everyday language and how they’re able to build on that.”

The soccer field can offer a mental escape from the stresses of everyday life. Life after leaving your home country can be especially difficult for refugee youth.

“It was hard at first because I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know how to speak English, and it was hard to communicate with people from here,” said Lalia Raly, 17.

Raly first came to America five years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She’s a senior in high school now and has been coming to Soccer Without Borders for four years.

“In this program, I feel like it doesn’t matter how I speak English, they will still understand and try to figure out what I’m trying to say without making jokes,” said Raly. “They make you feel comfortable.”

Young refugees commonly have to shoulder additional burdens of learning how to navigate a new culture and advocate for their parents, many of whom don’t speak English.

“We always have this mentality that play and fun is a way to connect with young folks, especially young folks who have been through a lot of adversity and challenges,” said Brooks. “In many ways, that childhood experience is taken from folks. A lot of responsibilities and burdens fall on the backs of many participants.”

But students like Raly are finding hope and community in Soccer Without Borders.

“I feel like soccer brings all of us together, and we trust each other,” she said.

The organization has six different sites: Maryland, Colorado, Massachusetts and California, as well as international sites in Uganda and Nicaragua. Brooks says they hope to continue to grow to meet the needs of an increasing number of global refugees.

“Soccer might become what they show up for, but I think it starts as just a place where they feel a sense of community and a lot of love,” said Sipes.