Hearing the term “refugee kids” may evoke a flurry of images, but they’re usually not that of happy kids playing soccer.
In a bid to achieve the ultimate goal of positive change, personal success, and growth , the coaches at the Soccer Without Borders USA (SWB USA) are teaching refugee, asylee and immigrant youth how to score.
Lindsey Whitford, the Director of the Boston program, believes that being part of a soccer team is important for the community. “When you’re born, it’s into a family, and in the same way, when these kids arrive into the country, they have a place to go to find that instant sense of membership,” she says.
The constellation of freckles on Whitford’s face changes shape and her expressions alter while she speaks. Our conversation is repeatedly interrupted as she gives out high fives, fist bumps and hugs to the stream of fresh-faced young boys that trickle in to the East Boston Social Centre in Central Square, South Boston.
Whitford is coach to 14 boys in sixth through eighth grades. She knows each by name, knows who had an ear infection, knows which one had a test, and which one was on T.V. She leads them into practice — indoors today, at a basketball court. Miniature traffic cones on each end serve as makeshift goal posts.
Whitford’s team follows four rules: to try everything, have fun, show respect, and speak in English. Eighty-five percent of the kids enrolled in the program hail from Latin America, and the remaining 15 percent from North Africa, so pre-game warm ups consist of English language and vocabulary building games. Academic workshops help the kids catch up with native students. The entire program is free for the children, with expenses met through donations, fundraisers, and grants from family and corporate foundations. (Soccer Without Borders is currently organizing its 5th Annual Craft Beer Tasting fundraiser for April 28.)
Randy, 13, joined the team 2 months ago. A student at Umana Academy, he came to the United States from Guatemala two years ago. His favorite team is Real Madrid C.F., but the one he’s part of at SWB Boston is special to him. He says it has helped him “learn English and make friends.”
But why does the program stress on soccer? Why not any other sport? Whitford believes it’s the world’s game. (The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) estimated in it’s “Big Count” survey in 2000 that 265 million people play it worldwide.)
Located in four cities across the United States — Baltimore, Boston, Greeley, and Oakland– the program caters to thousands of kids like Randy annually. In the Boston program, Whitford estimates that 375 kids are enrolled every year, ranging from the first to tenth grade. Their status as documented or illegal immigrants is “just not a question that’s asked,” she says. “It’s important for these kids, when they come into this country at such young ages, to have reliable mentors. Every kid should have support, and that’s all we focus on giving them, both on and off the field.”