How soccer united refugees from around the world in Sacramento

Ghazwan Fadhil hadn't seen Ahmed Khayyafi since they graduated from the same high school in Iraq more than 20 years ago. At the World Refugee Day soccer tournament at Papa Murphy's Park on Wednesday, the pair reunited in blue pinnies on the pitch.

Fadhil said the event, featuring refugee and international ex-pats from the Sacramento area, embodied the spirit of the sport.

"People from different cultures, different communities, are meeting today," he said.

World Relief Sacramento, a local nonprofit that helps refugees transition to life in America, conceived of and organized the tournament with support from Mayor Darrell Steinberg and four other immigrant-focused organizations.

Teams divided loosely by nationality squared off in a round-robin tournament that ran from 4 to 9 p.m. They chipped passes and fired crosses on the same grass that Republic FC, who also worked to coordinate the event, plays their home games on.

"I used to be sitting there," Fadhil said, pointing to the stands that seat 12,000, "and now I'm playing here."

Outside the stadium, food trucks sold gyros and Hawaiian shaved ice while kids giggled in bounce houses. The organizations sponsoring the event — Sacramento's Refugee Programs Bureau, Opening Doors Inc., International Rescue Committee Sacramento, Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, Lao Family Community Development Inc. and World Relief Sacramento — tabled nearby.

Genevieve Levy, the director of family services for the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, said the main goal of the event was awareness.

"We want to let those that don't know see that Sacramento is a magnet community for refugees, with lots of networks that are welcoming," she said.

Ten thousand refugees have resettled in Sacramento over the last four years, more than any other city in the country, according to World Relief Sacramento.

Fadhil was one of those refugees. He played soccer professionally in Iraq, but emigrated to America 10 years ago and now plays weekly pickup games with friends, many of whom were on his team at the tournament on Wednesday. Khayyafi, his friend from high school, lives in New Zealand and just happened to be visiting California this week.

Their team captain, Ali Alazzawi, was sidelined by a foot injury, but was the one who arranged for their team to participate.

Alazzawi worked as a doctor in Iraq before moving to Jordan, then to the United States, after al-Qaida threatened his life.

Immigration was initially traumatic, Alazzawi said, but he's gone on to spearhead nonprofits, work for the UC Davis Prenatal Screening Program, and become a U.S. citizen. Now, playing soccer next to Ukrainians and Syrians, he said he feels proud.

"We want to show everyone that we are productive people and a strong community," he said.

When Republic FC suits up for their league match against St. Louis FC on Saturday, players from the refugee tourney will take the field at halftime, and the winning team will get to raise a trophy for a packed house.

Fadhil and Alazzawi's team might not get to hold the hardware — they lost to their first opponents, a group of Afghan refugees. But that's not the point, Fadhil said.

"Soccer," he said, "is all about the gathering."

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