Sacramento welcomes refugees with 2nd annual soccer tournament

Children hit the field with a game of their own, sandwiched between the adult teams, at a refugee soccer tournament organized by World Relief Sacramento.
Children hit the field with a game of their own, sandwiched between the adult teams, at a refugee soccer tournament organized by World Relief Sacramento.

On a gusty morning last weekend, 14 soccer teams comprised of 150 Sacramento-based refugees took to the fields at Papa Murphy’s Park for the second annual refugee soccer tournament, organized by World Relief Sacramento and Sacramento Republic FC.

Sacramento has resettled 58,000 refugees in the past 42 years, according to the California Department of Social Services’ Refugee Program Bureau — including 5,000 in 2018 alone, said World Relief Sacramento.

Sacramento is one of the friendliest cities for refugees in the US’s most welcoming state.

The city’s diversity was on full display as refugees from over 12 countries congregated in celebration of their communities.

Food carts vended falafel and hot dogs while families roamed the grounds. Kids played in bounce houses while their parents mulled over informational booths about local resources.

On the fields, friends who hadn’t seen each other for years reunited. Shafi Rahimi and Qasem Baheer were collaborators and friends in Afghanistan – “We used to talk business and talk life,” Rahimi said – but lost track of each other in 2013 when Rahimi moved to the United States.

“Today, in this event, I found him,” Rahimi said.

He added, “I wasn’t sure if it was him because, if I could tease him a little bit, he put on a little bit of weight.”

“A lot, actually,” Baheer conceded.

Face to face, unsure of his own eyes, Rahimi recounted the details of Baheer’s life in Afghanistan to regain Baheer’s trust. “And who are you?” Baheer asked him. Then at last the old friends recognized each other.

“He used to be my party buddy, so we’re going to start on those parties again,” Rahimi said, slapping Baheer’s shoulder.

“This event started another journey of us,” Baheer said. “... This is the beauty of this type of event, that brings together the faces that were once lost.”

Before Rahimi, captain of AFG Elites, jogged off to play the final game against Euro FC, which AFG Elites would win, he made a final remark: “This is a tournament for life.”

As the tournament advanced, team members found respite in the players’ tent. An Afghan team crowded beside a Ukrainian team, which crowded beside the Sacramento Police Department team. Men sang and bantered over shared lunch while they waited for the next game.

Beneath a tent, Rasool Gul photographed his friends in Afghan United. Six months ago, Gul left his Sacramento-area community of five years to work at the California Department of Transportation in Arcata, in the northwest corner of the state. He drove six hours from Arcata for the event, which he anticipated for months.

Having worked as an interpreter for the Air Force in Afghanistan, Gul was among the first of many Afghan refugees to be resettled in Sacramento through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program in 2013. More Afghan and Iraqi refugees arriving on SIVs are settled in Sacramento than in any other Californian city, according to the DSS.

Gul worked as a technician at Apple before studying at American River College, then earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Sacramento State.

“A lot of Afghan refugees go to college. But it’s tough because they have to support their families in Afghanistan,” he said. “So some of them give up after a semester of two. It’s very hard – having a full-time job, stressing about your family, paying your bills here.”

“I intend to educate myself more so, at some point, if the situation is right, I can go back (to Afghanistan) and do something to make a difference.”

He was joined by his friend Omar Hadi. “I want to be just like him when I grow up. He’s my idol for my future,” Omar said with a grin. The two joked in a mixture of Dari and English.

In spite of his prankish manner, Hadi said he experienced clinical depression three years prior. He recovered thanks to his tight-knit Sacramento community, he said. “It’s not about the soccer team. It’s just about showing up.”

“Every second of life you have the opportunity to change,” he said, suddenly philosophic. He said of Gul, “He’s very smart and talented. He has put a lot of intention into his life.”

“He’s my brother,” Gul said.

They recovered their banter after a few beats, breaking out into an Afghani folkloric song.

In a quiet corner of the rowdy tent, Abilio Coronado, who is seeking asylum in the U.S., spoke about his trajectory from El Salvador to Tijuana to Sacramento. “I didn’t have a coyote. I came with my daughters,” he said through an interpreter.

ICE issued him with an ankle monitor and a Notice to Appear (NTA) for April 8. Only through a private attorney connected to his church, The House Modesto, did he discover that his court date was actually April 1.

Had he shown up on April 8, ICE would have deported him, he said.

“I’m still in the process. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “But I’m trusting in God.”

“It’s a beautiful experience being here (at the tournament),” he said, adjusting his shin pads. Then he and his friend headed to the field.

Resettled refugees of several years have themselves joined legal advisory teams and refugee resettlement organizations, including World Relief, the International Rescue Committee, and Lao Family Community Development.

Before the semifinals, members of World Relief, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Vice Mayor Eric Guerra spoke to the crowd.

LeeAnn Danielson, events and outreach coordinator of World Relief Sacramento, expressed pride in Sacramento for being one of the country’s most welcoming cities for refugees.

But she called for a moment of silence in honor of the 68 million displaced people who have yet to be resettled by the international community. For one minute, the lively pitch fell quiet.

Guerra recalled his roots in Mexico. “We didn’t know the language or the community, and it was difficult. It was isolating. But we live in fear no more because we have World Relief Sacramento.” He roused a round of applause for Sacramento, “the city of the many.”

The tournament, an event of the many, was as much a welcome to Sacramento as it was a celebration of global cultures.

And a shared cultural phenomenon — “the world’s language,” said Kerry Ham, director of World Relief Sacramento — is soccer.

“I don’t think anything represents that more than today,” said Sacramento Republic FC President Ben Gumpert.

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Chalay Chalermkraivuth, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She reports on arts and entertainment, the LGBTQ community and social justice. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand.