Safety Net

Soccer Without Borders helps refugee boys adapt to life in Baltimore.
David Colwell

Just a minute or so remained in the contest when Yoppe Kalasa intercepted a pass at midfield. His under-16 team, made up entirely of refugees new to Baltimore playing their first-ever Central Maryland Soccer Association match, hadn’t scored a goal all game. In fact, they trailed 6-0 in the waning moments at Perry Hall’s Honeygo Park.

It wasn’t that the boys didn’t possess skills—they’d grown up playing pick-up soccer in war-torn Iraqi cities and Congolese villages, in Nepal, Eritrea, and Cameroon, as well as Ugandan and Ethiopian refugee camps. And they badly wanted to prove themselves, but no one had ever played an organized game on a regulation-sized field with referees. Of course, trying to communicate in a dozen different languages proved an obstacle, too, among the players, their coach, and the referees.

The boys had been kicking the ball around informally for several months with coach Jill Pardini, at the time a Baltimore City Community College-affiliated Refugee Youth Project volunteer, when they began urging her to form a real squad. Despite birth certificate questions about the kids’ ages in the local youth soccer league and skepticism in refugee communities about whether a graduate would stick around to see the project through, she’d managed to sort through the paperwork. A former University of Iowa midfielder and Peace Corps’ English teacher, Pardini understood soccer could be a good hook for boys needing to learn a second language.

“I just forgot to teach them the rules of the game,” she laughs, recalling that initial match three years ago.


Jill Pardini, founder of Soccer Without Borders-Baltimore, coaching refugee boys in 2013.

For example, the boys were unfamiliar with even the kick-off that starts each match.

“The referee must’ve tried six or seven times to explain how the kick-off works before he gave up and just handed the ball to the other team,” recalls Kaltum Suleman, who had recently been relocated from an Ethiopian refugee camp into an East Baltimore apartment with his mother and sister. He spoke virtually no English at the time, but three years later, now captains Digital Harbor High School’s Baltimore City Championship soccer team.

The players didn’t know how to throw the ball in from the sidelines or understand “offsides.” Or, that they needed to keep playing until they heard the referee’s whistle. “If they thought there was a hand ball or foul, they’d stop playing immediately—like you do in pick-up,” Pardini says. “But the referee doesn’t always see things the way you do.”

After corralling the errant pass at midfield, Kalasa first looked to distribute the ball forward as time wound down. Finding no one open, he broke toward the goal instead. Slight and quiet off the field, yet fast and aggressive in cleats, he dribbled past four defenders. Finally, he swept around the goalkeeper, coming out to stop him, and slipped a right-footed shot inside the near post.

His teammates, including Suleman and Warshan Hussin, an Iraqi immigrant whose father had been tortured by anti-U.S. militia kidnappers, ran onto the field and tackled the (now-Patterson High junior) in jubilation. The referees, opposing players and coaches, never having witnessed such a scene by a team about to lose 6-1, stood and watched in a state of shock.

“We were just so happy,” explains Warshan, a sophomore starting forward at Digital Harbor and still part of the program that ultimately developed into the Baltimore chapter of Soccer Without Borders. “It was the first success that we had.”

When she was a Johns Hopkins Public Policy graduate student two years ago, Pardini interned with one of the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees programs in Highlandtown. However, she noticed an odd thing: most of the participating students, by far, in the extra-curricular, language, and after-school programs, were girls. Asking the girls where the boys might be, she was told that they were probably playing soccer up on Moravia Road.

Curious, Pardini went to see for herself. Soon she started organizing informal practices and late afternoon pick-up games, grouping kids by size and integrating them by country. The Iraqi kids couldn’t just hang around and play on the same side with other Iraqi kids; same for the Nepalese and Bhutanese boys, which is what had been happening. Previously, rather than bonding over their shared dislocation and affection for the “beautiful game,” refugee boys from different countries had become rivals.

Over coffee, homemade fig cookies, injera, and lamb dinners with parents and leaders of the dozen local refugee communities, Pardini learned about the struggles the kids faced and pitched the idea of organizing a team to compete in the recreational Central Maryland Soccer Association. To her amazement, 62 kids showed up at the first formal practice and, later, two teams were formed. She aligned the nascent soccer program with the Oakland-based Soccer Without Borders, a nonprofit that provided much-needed gear, including practice T-shirts, jerseys, shorts, shin guards, and cleats, as well as technical assistance with insurance issues and website development. Founded by former Lehigh University soccer player Ben Gucciardi in 2006, core Soccer Without Borders chapters in the U.S. have developed in Oakland and Baltimore, with seasonal programs and camps in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Greeley, CO (a meatpacking center, which attracts immigrant workers). There are also international chapters in Nicaragua and Uganda.

Because of its proximity to New York and Washington, D.C., the availability of affordable, if not great, housing options, and a stable Maryland economy, Baltimore has become a growing arrival point for refugees, asylees, and immigrants. Baltimore City Public Schools now serve more than 3,000 English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Soccer Without Borders, which targets middle-school boys and girls, and high-school-aged boys, with an athletic inclination, serves more than 50 kids year-around. “There’s room to grow,” says Gina Gabelia, academic director with Soccer Without Borders. “The need is there.”

Eventually, the Open Society Institute awarded Pardini a grant to help the Baltimore chapter get off the ground. And today, Soccer Without Borders-Baltimore provides a range of opportunities for refugee students to improve their English-language and academic abilities, engage in community service, and develop cross-cultural skills. Kids in the program receive tutoring assistance from Towson University, Loyola, and Hopkins students, and help with SAT prep, college applications, resumes, summer jobs, and internships. They regularly attend Baltimore Blast games together and have attended English Premier League games—each has their favorite team in the world’s most popular professional sports league—as a group at M&T Bank Stadium.

“Soccer is a powerful tool because it is what these kids love, and it’s something that is familiar, unlike school or their neighborhood. Or even their family dynamic, which changes,” Pardini says. “It’s a place where they feel safe and have a sense of self-esteem—because they are good at this—in the chaos that’s around them.”

When Pardini, just 29, but a coach/mother-like figure for many of the boys, refers to a place where the kids feel “safe,” she doesn’t only mean it in an emotional or psychological sense. Many of the refugee kids have experienced war and its associated strife, and it’s not uncommon for them to suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms. But they are also easy targets for bullying, harassment, and physical intimidation once they arrive and are sent to live in some of East Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods.

Suleman was born in Eritrea, but for all intents and purposes grew up during his seven years spent in an Ethiopian refugee camp. When he arrived in his first Moravia Park housing complex three years ago, personal safety, the teenager says, was a major concern. Life in the refugee camp, along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, long in conflict, was certainly challenging with limited supplies of cooking oil, rice, and potable water—and without electricity or plumbing—but generally stable. However, bullying, at the bus stop, in school, and in his neighborhood, quickly became a problem. Rocks were thrown at the family’s front apartment window, breaking the glass, and his classmates mocked his language and clothes. An older stepbrother, he says, was shot at (but not hit) one night leaving the supermarket where he worked. Tragically, one young Bhutanese man was killed and another shot in a 2011 robbery in northeast Baltimore.

“It’s like they [the State Department] bring us from one dangerous place where we are afraid of getting killed to another dangerous place where we are afraid of getting killed,” says Warshan, who came from Iraq by way of Syria with his parents, older brother, and younger sister. Standing next to Suleman at a practice at Abbot Memorial Presbyterian Church’s tiny second-floor gym in Highlandtown, he says, “You don’t know whether you are going to get killed or not here, but you are going to get beat up.”

Many families spend a lot of time at home, sitting in the dark, avoiding as much contact with the outside world as possible, says Pardini, who, along with Gabelia and volunteers, assists refugee kids and their families in navigating everything from landlord-tenant problems to school crises.

Suleman was among the first refugees Pardini met at the first organized practice up on Moravia Road. Skinny but tall, the 13-year-old (at the time) had grown up in the refugee camp playing soccer with balled-up paper and small rocks—“whatever we could find”—stuffed into socks. Naturally bright, personable, and quick to smile, Suleman, however, began to get into fights because of the harassment directed at him in and out of middle school. “I had a bad attitude about everything and anger-management problems,” he says. “But when I play soccer, everything goes away.”

“Coach Jill,” he continues, “helped with much more than soccer. Basically, she taught me English through soccer. She got me to go to the Refugee Youth Project [a Soccer Without Borders partner run by Baltimore City Community College] after school for help with my homework. I can tell her anything. She helped me and my family so much.” Equally important, the regular after-school soccer practices, community-building activities, and academic work provided a feeling of security and confidence. “Soccer Without Borders is like my second family,” he says.

By coincidence, one boy Suleman met several months after joining Soccer Without Borders was a kid he recognized from his sprawling refugee camp in Ethiopia—Kalasa. Not that they were friends in the refugee camp, more like adversaries. Always on opposing sides playing soccer as children there, they didn’t particularly like each other, but suddenly, here they were, thousands of miles away, face-to-face on a grass field in East Baltimore. “A friend said he was bringing someone from Ethiopia to practice,” recalls Suleman, “and then I see who it is and I’m like, ‘Oh no, not this guy. I came to the U.S. first; I didn’t know he was coming.’” The two, of course, became the best of friends. “We read each other’s mind on the field.”

Kalasa’s father, a farmer, took his family across the Eritrean border to Ethiopia to avoid being forced into the Eritrean army. His mother passed away when he was five. One of his sisters has already relocated again, to Texas, but another remains behind in the Ethiopian refugee camp.

“It’s very hard when you first arrive,” says Kalasa. “You don’t have any of your friends. The language is a problem and there’s a lot of loneliness.” As Kalasa tells a reporter his story at the apartment he shares with his father, a new refugee, Robert, from Sudan, gently knocks on the door. Kalasa invites him in and offers him a slice of pizza. “He doesn’t speak any English at all,” Kalasa says, explaining the boy’s shyness. “But he’s going to play soccer with us.”

Coming from Ethiopian refugee camps, Suleman and Kalasa admit with laughter they had expected the America they’d seen in Hollywood films: “where everyone has a big car and money grows on trees,” as Suleman puts it. Instead, they watch their parents struggle even more with the language as well as trying to find work. Still, those problems are not the most daunting for refugees. “I did not expect crazy people,” Kalasa says, referring to the predators who bully refugee kids and their families.

In terms of academics, Gabelia notes nearly all of the kids have “interrupted” educational backgrounds, and many do not possess fundamental reading and writing skills even in their native language. Middle- and high-school students arriving from various countries often have academic skills below the grade level where their age dictates they should be placed. In the Soccer Without Borders after-school and tutoring programs, Gabelia says, the work isn’t curriculum-based, but focused on each student’s individual needs. “It takes a lot of volunteers, we try to have one tutor for every two students.”

Warshan and his older brother Anmar, whom Pardini calls the program’s first “graduate,” were not as naïve as Kalasa and Suleman, but nonetheless didn’t understand what they would face in coming to the U.S. Anmar, who preceded his younger brother as Digital Harbor’s leading goal scorer, and now works part-time and attends Howard Community College, says it wasn’t unusual for people to call him “a terrorist,” and tell him “to go back home,” when he arrived. “The 10-year anniversary of 9-11 was the worst for me,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave the house. I wouldn’t go out and meet anyone.”

“At school, kids would ask if we had military weapons at home—or if I knew how to make a bomb,” says Warshan, an impossible-not-to-like 16-year-old with large round eyes, bushy eyebrows, and a spiky haircut. “Ridiculous things.”

His older brother says the most important lesson he learned through Soccer Without Borders was that he didn’t have to respond to everyone who gave him a hard time or called him a racist name. “I learned how to show people respect and to show them that they can respect us back,” Anmar says. “That’s why we didn’t fight.”

At Patterson High, which along with Digital Harbor, has Baltimore’s highest foreign-born student population and where Kalasa starts at forward, head coach Daniel Callahan estimates nine or 10 members of his squad this past fall were refugees. Most participated in Soccer Without Borders. With its after-school programs, Saturday school, and out-of-season practices and tournaments, Soccer Without Borders fills in the gaps for the boys between school and home, he says.

“These kids have been through so much with their lives already, but they understand the importance of school work,” Callahan says. “Right now [this winter], they’re practicing three times a week and participating in mandatory study halls with Soccer Without Borders. I think it’s been a great influence.”

“These kids have latched on to Soccer Without Borders and then other kids arrive and are latching on because of them,” says Alan Febres, Digital Harbor’s head soccer coach. “What Baltimore is right now is a melting pot,” says Febres, who left Peru with his parents 32 years ago. “Like a really small melting pot for kids from all over the world.”

Anmar and Warshan’s father, Mhmod, who has permanent leg and back injuries from the torture he suffered after being kidnapped from his store in front of his youngest son, says he wanted to bring his family to the U.S. for educational opportunities that weren’t available in Syria where they had fled. Anmar plans to attend a four-year school, “Maryland or Penn State,” after two years at community college, and hopes, eventually, to attend medical school.

Warshan says he would like to play soccer in college, study business, and return to the Middle East, at least a little closer to home, to the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, perhaps, where there is less conflict. However, he seems happy at the moment, in school, playing with his Soccer Without Borders friends.

“We can talk about our experiences with each other, the things that have happened, and know that they will understand because they have been through the same things,” Warshan says. “I like that we are all from different countries and all refugees. We all have problems, but we all came here to have a better life.”