Refugees use soccer as a universal language
Sep. 14, 2013 @ 10:16 PM

One month. Two days. That’s how long Aboubake Eltoum has lived in America.

Clad in new electric blue cleats on Duke’s Central Campus Field, he took a break from playing soccer during “National Welcoming Week.” This is the first time Durham resettlement organizations have used the international sport to bring Durhamites and  newcomers together.

“I decided to come here to change my life and help my family,” said Eltoum, who’s from Darfur, Sudan. His mother, father and siblings are still an ocean’s length away. “If I can work, maybe I can get them some money.” 

Uniting NC, a nonprofit that was formed to make North Carolina a more welcoming place for immigrants and refugees, helped organize the event. Dan Rearick, Uniting NC’s executive director, has led volunteer days at the Goodwill community farm and has participated in international festivals. They welcome immigrants and refugees, from Hong Kong and Korea to Guatemala and Argentina, hoping to guide those who don’t know how to quite start this new chapter of American life.

Rearick spent a year of his life at an orphanage in Bolivia, where he was “the parent for a group of 27 boys.”

“I knew they would be lucky if they even had running water in life,” Rearick said. “I knew my boys didn’t have a chance to come to the U.S.”

Players who had either spent more than a year or less than two weeks in Durham, searched through bins of donated cleats and formed teams that zipped across the field, aggressive in how they dove for the small windows of opportunity to make goals. Children played with miniature goal nets on the outskirts of the field, and toddlers swung their tiny feet at soccer balls.

“Soccer around the world is a universal language in a way, kind of like love, right?” said Mercedes Restucha-Klem, a volunteer with Uniting NC.

Her parents were some of the first Latino transplants in the Raleigh area, and talking in Spanish was like talking in a secret language. Restucha-Klem picked up some of the refugees Saturday and drove them to the soccer field. Despite the language barrier, they always find ways to communicate and bond.

“You definitely make yourself understood,” she said.

Church World Service, a resettlement agency with an office in downtown Durham, also brought about 30 people to the game that day, hailing from Eritrea, the Congo, Sudan and Central African Republic.

Kelly Cohen-Mazurowski, who works with CWS, said her team helps people find work, learn English and move furniture into new apartments. They’ve even shown refugees how to use a door key – Some have never lived with locks before.

She studied abroad in northern Uganda as an undergraduate and saw firsthand how the Lord’s Resistance Army pushed families into refugee camps that were vast, yet overcrowded.

“People in camps are just kind of waiting,” Cohen-Mazurowski said. “They’re waiting for the situation to change.”

Through the chain-link fence, she watched the soccer game. She cheered when a 12-year-old Iraqi goalie caught a fly ball. A man from the Central African Republic walked by, and she greeted him in French with a smile.

In the past 20 days, Durham CWS has received 20 clients. It’s not uncommon for a refugee’s journey to the U.S. to take years, she said, as they go through a long screening process and an interview with Homeland Security. By the time they get to the States, many have already been relocated a few times.

The refugee “free cases” are told by a resettlement agency where they need to go. Some in the Triangle area have ended up working in hotels, restaurants and carwashes. Others are doing landscaping or IT work.

When Iraqi Nasseer Naji helps other refugees, he hears a lot of sad stories, he said. His own family still lives in Baghdad, but he had to leave the country after working for American energy and construction company KBR.

If someone overheard he was working with the U.S., they would have killed him.

By 2007, the year American troops surged into Iraq, he knew he had to get to the States. Even though he worked 12-hour days in the coalition-led “Green Zone,” he would take alternative routes home in darkness.

But even with the urgency, it took him four years to get to the States. He’s now waiting for his family to be processed so they can one day be reunited. He calls every week to check in on them.

“Every week, we have car bombs in Baghdad, and all these things, I tell them, hey, stay home,” Naji said. The insurgents will target cafeterias, small stadiums. No place is off-limits.

He’s now a case manager for Church World Service, helping those who are in the same shoes. He is fluent in Arabic, but he’s now learning new words, in their languages.

“I’ve been through this, and I know exactly what they’re feeling.”