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Albany Volunteers and Refugees Find Common Ground in Soccer

Take a sunset stroll along Lincoln Park on any given Monday and chances are, you’ll hear a chorus of cheers in a conglomeration of languages as you walk past the open field.  You might hear an exclamation in Arabic here, a few French shouts there, and some Swahili and English phrases thrown in for good measure.  A closer look will reveal a lively ball game, in which the players are young and old, male and female--their backgrounds as diverse as the United Nations. What's going on here, you might ask?

It's sportsmanship at its best.  And it's brought to you by USCRIFC (U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Football Club), started in the spring of this year by Frank Zimmerman, an intern with USCRI Albany.

As part of his internship, Frank worked closely with refugees from around the globe to try to help them find employment.  He soon realized that going to job interviews, vocational training, and taking English classes can take a toll on anyone--let alone someone who had to flee for his or her life, live in a refugee camp, and now has to start all over in a foreign country.  He wanted the refugees to get out and have some fun.  He was also looking for a way to spend some quality time with both his USCRI colleagues and the refugees they help resettle.  That's when he decided to organize a soccer team.

Watch the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Football Club Slideshow:

Why soccer? Unlike American football or baseball, soccer is a sport that almost everyone in the world is familiar with, so the choice was easy for Frank.  "I figured that the rules of soccer were understood by most of the refugees and the game had no overhead cost," he said.  "It was as easy as putting up some posters."

Frank and his coworkers, whom he endearingly describes as an active bunch, got the ball rolling, so to speak, and started hosting soccer matches on Monday afternoons from 6:30 to dusk.  The time of day they picked was late enough for adults to play after work and early enough to ensure that the little ones can watch (and sometimes participate) without staying out past bedtime.

“It’s incredibly important for everyone from all walks of life to play,” explained Zoeann Murphy USCRI Albany Director.  "Starting over in a new country is a stressful experience and it is valuable to provide opportunities for play and joy."

USCRIFC is part of a nationwide trend.  Clarkston, GA, has the Fugees; Utica, NY, has the New York Dash Soccer Club; Tucson, AZ, has FC Bosnia; and almost every other refugee community in the United States has a soccer team.  In his book, Outcasts United, author Warren St. John chronicles how people from diverse backgrounds, who wouldn't have met under any other circumstances, come together on the soccer field.

"Soccer gives you a sense of competitiveness and a desire to win, which is necessary for the displaced people who are at the verge of losing hope," explains Scovia Olet, an intern with USCRI Albany and a player on the soccer team.  What's more, soccer is the universal language that connects Americans, who often join in on the games, with newly arrived families.  And it's a great way for teenagers and young adults to become comfortable in a new culture and adjust to life in the United States.  Said Scovia, "Soccer brings communities together, which helps in cultural integration which the displaced people really need for survival."

And in the end, it all comes down to teamwork and togetherness--whether it's on the field or in real-life situations.  "Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable," said Scovia, quoting a Kenyan proverb.  "For every team to succeed, regardless of the sport, teamwork has to prevail," she said.  "Not only in soccer but in everything we do in life."

Learn more about helping refugees build new lives in the Capital Region and how you can help >>

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