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Starting From Scratch: Refugees Rebuild Lives in Baltimore
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July 26, 2011
Mamadou, Rueben, Eradi! Let’s go! Orange is on this side! Mustafa!”
On a patchy field at a northeast Baltimore middle school, Jill Pardini gathers two-dozen refugee boys for a game of soccer. A mix of languages ripple through the air, though there’s only one official one.
“The majority of the time the rule is we speak English amongst ourselves. But, you know, you’ll hear the boys speaking Arabic, you’ll hear them speaking in Swahili, so people are like, ‘Who are these kids?’
“I’m just a regular Somalian boy who’s trying to get a better education and a good life.”
That’s Ahmed. He plays defense. He came here seven years ago when he was 8-years-old.
“I want to practice my soccer, but then I don’t have any brother to play with.”
So, he comes here to play.
Pardini, who played college soccer, formed the under-16 boys team a little more than a year ago. She coaches under the banner of Soccer Without Borders, a non-profit that organizes youth soccer teams in refugee communities. Ben Gucciardi, a 27-year-old San Francisco native, founded the organization five years ago. Gucciardi, a former collegiate soccer player himself, says the sport can play a vital role in young refugee lives.
“There’s so much that’s changing in their lives and being able to do something that’s familiar, like soccer, can really be beneficial in connecting them to… you know, it’s a part of their culture in a lot of ways for a lot of the kids.”
But, even the soccer culture here is different. Coming from war-torn countries, the boys had all played informal matches on improvised fields. Formal soccer rules posed an initial challenge. Once again, Pardini.
“At one point, our first goal ever that we scored as a team, my whole bench just cleared off the side of the field and just went on the field and I was like, ‘Guys! You can’t go on the field! You can’t go on the field!’ They’re just so excited, you know. And, the referee is looking at me like, ‘What is wrong with your team?’ And, I’m like, ‘They just don’t know the rules.’ Just so many little things that I was like, ‘Okay, I didn’t explain that. I’ll have to work on that next week.’”
As they find more success on the field, Gucciardi says the young refugees develop beneficial skills that will help them off the field.
“It engages young people and there’s all these kind of inherent lessons in the game. You know, like thinking about conflict resolution, thinking about teamwork, thinking about communication which are things if you don’t do well, you can’t be successful in soccer.”
The young refugees will need those skills if they are to find their place in a Baltimore city culture that has little in common with their own.
“Everybody minds their business here. It’s hard to live with somebody who minds his business.”
That’s 15-year-old Glory, the captain of the team. Glory is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He came to Baltimore two years ago from Tanzania.
“Where I come from, everybody minds everybody’s business. If somebody is sick, everybody should know, everybody should feel bad, everybody should do something, but here… just… kind of different. But, we live with it.”
The soccer team makes that just a little easier as they navigate their new home here.
I’m Matt Purdy, reporting in northeast Baltimore, for 88-1, WYPR.
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