DURHAM — Under a bright blue sky, about 80 people from a dozen or so countries got acquainted on a soccer field Saturday.
There were Somalis, Sudanese, Eritreans, Burmese, Argentines, Danes, Mexicans – along with born-and-bred Tar Heels, Triangle residents and graduate students watching, cheering, running, kicking and sweating together for two hours.
By general consensus, it was a lot of fun.
“Good. Good. I’m glad to be here,” said Yikalo Araya, from Eritrea. His native language is called Tigrinya. Other players spoke Malay, French, Arabic, Somali, Chin – among others
“Even though there’s a huge language barrier, soccer is a universal sport,” said Mandy Padgett.
Padgett works for Soccer.com, a Hillsborough company that donated gear for Kicking It Together, a pickup soccer game organized by the nonprofit groups Uniting NC and Church World Service.
“This is just an opportunity to come out, have fun and do something they love to do,” said Uniting NC Director Dan Rearick, whose agency makes connections between native-born and foreign-born Americans living in North Carolina. Church World Service helps new immigrants, particularly refugees, settle in.
“There aren’t really that many avenues for them to get out and meet new people,” Rearick said. “They’re hungry to do that. They want to get out in the community and get to know people. It’s great to be able to give them that chance.”
Adam Sadda said he doesn’t play that well, but he was on the field Saturday.
“It’s fun, I liked it,” he said afterward, and he had met some people, too.
Sadda fled his native Darfur “because of the problem.” After Janjaweed militia destroyed his home village, Sadda fled the country, first to Chad and then to Libya, until civil war broke out there and he had to flee again. For two years, he said, his home was a refugee camp on the Libya-Egypt border, before Church World Service resettled him in the U.S. nine months ago.
“I like it here,” he said. “It’s very quiet.”
Rearick was pleased with how many responded to invitations from the two agencies. He had said he expected about 50, and he counted about that many players, but there were also friends and relatives who came just to watch the action.
Most of the action was on a synthetic turf field at Duke University’s Central Campus, where players took turns on two teams of 15 players each who ranged from middle-school age to 65. Outside the field fence, younger children, with a few grownups for company, played on two improvised fields on the grass where miniature goals were set up.
“They’re all so excited to play,” said Kelly Cohen-Mazurowski, a coordinator with the Durham office of Church World Service. “It’s really something different.”
Church World Service is one of about 14 charitable agencies that resettle refugees after they have been cleared to enter the United States – a process that can take years, Cohen-Mazurowski said.
Some refugees are placed near relatives or friends already in the United States, she said, but most have no American ties and are settled around the country in places where someone can speak the client’s language, where there are jobs and medical care available, and where clients will find “a welcoming community for people from other places,” Cohen-Mazurowski said.
In 2012, she said, Church World Service resettled about 5,600 people – 10 percent of the total number of refugees the U.S. took in under a ceiling that is reset each year. The Durham office handles about 250 arrivals a year, and offers them services for up to five years after they arrive.
“We think it’s a good place for refugees to be. … We are in a community where people are open to new neighbors from another country,” she said. Medical care is good, and there is work available in hotels, restaurants, car washes and higher-paying occupations for those with skills and a good command of English.
Aboudker Eldoup arrived a month ago from Darfur also by way of Libya and an Egyptian camp. Now, he’s going to job interviews.
“Housekeeping – anything I can do,” he said.
Uniting NC and Church World Service hold social and community-service events to acquaint newcomers and established residents, but the soccer game was a first, Rearick said. The idea came up at a Fourth of July cookout, when several newcomers mentioned that they really liked to play soccer but hadn’t found places and people to play so far.
“We just kind of made it happen,” said Padgett, who brought several of her Soccer.com co-workers to help out and to play Saturday morning. They also brought used shorts, shirts and cleats to give away to players who had no equipment of their own.
Thien Wam Chay and three friends said they arrived around two weeks ago from Myanmar, or Burma.
“We are very happy to play,” he said.