As many of you know, I have chosen to focus much, (not all) of my work with refugees on the soccer team of RISSE, the refugee and immigrant support organization centered in Albany, N.Y.
Ali, the founder, coach and guiding spirit of the people on the soccer team (and the coach of the new women’s basketball team taking shape) is my friend, my brother, my guide into this refugee world, a community in transition and need, and somewhat uncomfortably, in the spotlight.
We met the soccer team today at the Karen Festival for Burmese refugees in Albany.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez says you can learn much about the life of the refugees in the world by the amount of hostility and indifference they face, and the life of the refugee in America today is awash in both. They are lied about, denigrated, and exploited buy ruthless politicians.
Ali, who was born in America and was raised in Egypt and the Sudan, has devoted his life to overseeing the soccer team, their physical and emotional and practical needs.
He works tirelessly to drive them to games, skating, bowling and of course, soccer practice. He doesn’t ever want them wandering the streets with nothing to do, they always have something to do.
At his behest, I am negotiating hard with the owner of an indoor soccer training facility so the RISSE soccer team has a place to practice over the winter. And here’s the drill, as the building owner explained to me.
“The suburban kids with money are charged $10 a practice session,” says Glenn, “and they fill up my schedule because their parents pay the $10 fee, not the soccer team. Those teams buy space months ahead. The refugee kids parent’s don’t have any money, so they can’t book them time to practice, except when there’s a hole in the schedule like a Sunday night or holiday and I let them in for free or little money. They don’t get much practice.”
I am negotiating with Glen to guarantee the RISSE soccer kids practice time at his suburban facility indoors at least once a week. We have been working to make sure these kids have good winter shoes, new uniforms, more than one or two pairs of pants, sweaters and jackets, tutoring if they need it.
Ali visits their homes, and he and I are beginning a monthly program to deliver clothes and groceries to the soccer kids’ and their families. I’ve been to the soccer games and seen the powerhouse suburban kids they are up against, the sidelines are filled with cheering parents, and they have all the soccer balls they need to practice, along with some nuclear sneakers.
Ali is determined that his “Bedlam Farm Warriors” will be competitive and disciplined, they just won second place in a big holiday league tournament, it was a big upset victory. Soccer is critical to these kids, the team is their real community right now. He tells them that what they are seeing and hearing is not the real America, the real America will resurface.
At school, they are continuously taunted and told to go back home where they belong, almost all of their government assistance is being cut back. These are not easy times for refugee kids. So they have come to love and depend on Ali and each other. “They are my life right now,” says Ali, “I will do anything for them.”
And they will do anything for him, it is quite a beautiful thing to see. So Ali and I are now brothers from a different mother and I believe these children are much more than a soccer team, they are a symbol of where my country is and decides to go.
I believe they must succeed in their struggle to become Americans, and survive this difficult period of transition and assimilation. Almost every one of them has a horror story that no child should ever have to tell. So I am determined to help them succeed.
I am also committed, as is Ali and the Army Of Good, to offering them something other than hostility and indifference. After all, they could easily be me, or you or our kids.
This weekend, we are planning to retreat together at Pompanuck Farm, I’ve gotten copies of the book “Outcasts United,” the story of a refugee soccer team in Georgia that transformed a town, and “McFarlane, USA,” the DVD movie telling the story of immigrant children who became famous sprinters.
We’ll go to a movie, tell stories by the fire. Maria and I will cook and clean. We’ll have a lot to talk about, they are awfully nice people.
We won’t quit on them. They need to succeed, for the sake of my soul, I think, and of my country.
If you wish to help the RISSE soccer team, you can donate to the Refugee Fund, C/o Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or contribute via Paypal, firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.