A wonderful side of soccer -- helping kids feel like they belong

Gerardo Mercado is a 19-year-old Salvadoran who arrived to the United States in 2013, just before the height of the United States’ unaccompanied minor crisis -- when tens of thousands of children and youth began crossing our southern border without papers or parents, looking, like Gerardo was, for safety and a chance to start anew.

Soon after crossing the Rio Grande, Gerardo was apprehended by the authorities in Texas, and, because he was a minor, put into a youth detention facility in Texas; soon after, he was released to the care of his mother, who had lived for several years in the United States, in Oakland, California.

As required by law, Gerardo enrolled in school -- at Oakland International High School, where I work -- but it was difficult for him to concentrate in class.

He didn’t speak English, for one. He’d also experienced a lot out on the road on the way to the United States and, though his community in El Salvador was on the safer side, gang violence was taking over his country. He had heard about the violence -- extortions, rapes, robberies, murders -- every day on the news and from his friends and community members.

To get out of El Salvador, he had to pay a smuggler, or coyote, $7,000, a debt that was only growing now that he was in the U.S.

The only thing that he liked about school those first few months was soccer.

“The coaches would come up to me, invite me to come play, and it would just be fun and relaxing to be out there on the field with other people,” he said. Oakland International’s soccer program is run by Soccer Without Borders, an organization whose mission “is to use soccer as a vehicle for positive change” in the lives of newly arrived immigrant youth in the United States. “I felt welcomed, and like I could belong.”

But the debt weighed on him, as did the frustration of not understanding what was going on in class. He found a job washing dishes in a restaurant; working all night made it too hard to get out of bed the next morning and come to school. He dropped out. School administrators -- like me -- had tried everything we could to keep him in school, we felt, and after he dropped out, we thought we might never see him again.

He was out of school for a whole year, working the night shifts. He was able to help his family and pay off his debt. But the work was hard, and he began to picture a life of washing dishes forever. Against all the odds, Gerardo decided to come back to school.

While his return was triumphant -- it is very rare for a student to drop out for so long, and then return to school -- it was also difficult. He had the same challenges in class, and the same frustrations. He had vowed to make a change in his life, but that change didn’t come easily.

“But I had soccer,” he said, to help him stay connected to the school -- and to stay in school, period.

Soccer was something that, unlike English or math class, he felt good at. It was fun. Being out there on the field allowed him to forget, for a while, about the challenges he had faced and was facing.

“When you’re new to this country, and you don’t speak the language, and you have stress at home, and so many things to think about, being on the soccer field is a release,” he said.

Research also shows that physical activity positively impacts people who have experienced trauma, reducing stress, re-building neural pathways, and building self-esteem.

While Soccer Without Borders trains young immigrants in the principles and mechanics of the game, the real work lies in support students to feel connected to one another, to positive, caring adults, and to their new homes.

“It’s a program that really helps people,” Gerado explains. “It sees you, it encourages you to participate, to work together. People are watching out for you. You’re welcome there -- and there are no prerequisites, just that you come.”

So much political rhetoric surrounding migration hinges around exclusion, a bottom line of us vs. them. But this exclusion comes at great cost to communities. As I wrote in The New York Times earlier this year, “Quality public education is a fundamental, if aspirational, American value … Investing in newcomer education makes practical sense. It costs far more to lock someone up for a year than it does to educate him.”

I’ve worked with young, newly arrived immigrants to the United States for over a decade, now, watching students struggle to rebuild their lives in their new homes, find belonging, and cast a bright future for themselves out of the shards of their past.

Young immigrants coming to the United States at this moment in time have it perhaps harder than ever; whether from Syria or El Salvador, Burma or Bhutan, Mexico or Afghanistan, they are often fleeing untenable circumstances at home -- war, protracted refugee crises, endemic poverty, pervasive community violence, and other catastrophes no child should ever have to face -- and, once they arrive in the U.S., face mounting xenophobia, regressive immigration policies, and scapegoating of societal problems. How can these young people not be afraid? How can they feel like they are actually welcome here?

Soccer Without Borders has an answer to this: create a space of belonging, of achievement, of connectedness, and of belief in oneself and ones teammates. Create a family. Create a home.

Last Spring, Gerardo graduated from Oakland International High School near the top of his class, winning “The Spirit of Oakland International Award,” and a scholarship to help him offset his costs at community college. He’d beat all the odds, and his teammates and coaches were there to cheer him on.

What had kept Gerardo coming to school? For the first year or so back, it was entirely Soccer Without Borders’ program. “I felt known there,” he said. “I felt welcome, like I belonged. I felt at home.”

Come to Oakland International High School any day after school, Tuesday through Thursday, and you’ll see Soccer Without Borders’ teams out there on our misshapen field, students from dozens of countries, speaking just as many languages. Girls in hijab, young men awkward in puberty.

Some of them are experts with the ball, knowing just how to move it down field as though in a choreographed dance with their teammates; others haven’t yet learned to play on a team and still want to dribble the ball toward glory, time and time again; others still have never played soccer at all. But come to the field looking for camaraderie, a place to belong.

(Lauren Markham is the author of "The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life" -- Penguin Random House, 2017. Markham's work has appeared in outlets such as VQR, VICE, Orion, Pacific Standard, Guernica,  The Guardian, The New She can be followed on Twitter at @LaurenMarkham_)

NOTE: Soccer Without Borders was awarded the 2017 FIFA Diversity Award.

7 comments about "A wonderful side of soccer -- helping kids feel like they belong".
  1. Ray Lindenberg , January 18, 2018 at 5:50 p.m.

    Beautiful commenary Lauren ... and perfect timing to relate such given much of what we're hearing these days in the news. 'Soccer Without Borders' technicalky falls under the general umbrella concept that 'sports have no borders'. Team sports, especially globally embraced sports such as soccer (with basketball, volleyball and hockey not far behind, plus baseball, among orthers, gaining momentum) are the ultimate expressions of democracy and a fair and just melting pot in action, or waiting to happen. 

    The promise of soccer is enormous: play well and you'll gain acceptabiliy, popularity, and have a chance a punching your ticket to a variety of life-sized successes that could include educatonal athletic scholarships plus other venues that can catapult you to a career and financial success. Who cares what race, religion or nationality one is if they can demonstrate good perosnal and team skills on the pitch. 

    Thanks to soccer, one can hold that the truth is self-evident ... that all men and women are created equal. It's the ultimate value and underscoring of 'bonito' of the term: Jogo Bonito!

  2. Ben Myers, January 18, 2018 at 6:21 p.m.

    It is stories like these and others of lesser magnitude about sports that keep me involved and help me deal with those detractors who routinely say that sports is ruining our culture and ask why am I involved with sports anyway.  It is our culture that is ruining sports just for the fun of it.

  3. John Lyncheski, January 18, 2018 at 8 p.m.

    Please let’s keep politics out of sports/soccer. The environment of immigrants, legal and illegal, is totally charged with political issues. Participation in our sport and welcoming youth into our sport should be apolitical. 

  4. Ric Fonseca replied, January 19, 2018 at 10:38 p.m.

    Mr. Lyncheski:  I wish this was the case , but it is easier said than done. As a former "Oaklander" going back to the 50's, and a graduate of Castlemont HS, then there was no such thing as soccer for kids and the youth soccer groups weren't even a thought in someone's minds.  I will make it a point to do as the author of the article says and will venture a trip north to my old stomping grounds and check out this program.  In closing, thank you Ms. Markham for your very well written essay as you've made it come to life. 

  5. Ray Lindenberg , January 19, 2018 at 3:35 a.m.

    I think it’s fair to strive to keep politics out of the realm of our sports stories. It bogs is down from achieving the escape of enjoyment that fandom rewards us with.

    At the same time, as we’ve seen over and over, it’s nearly impossible to expect there won’t be intercepts, overlaps and entanglements when sports is involved. Sports reflects society and generates news — it’s just a reality. Sports make statements — sometimes pretty loud and emphatic ones.

    “Soccer Without Borders” has a relatively mild and benign message built into it: that while there may be borders throughout the world, soccer is a greater denominator, unifier and border disruptor. Fair enough. It parallels a few other unifying movements that double as statements such as ‘Music Without Borders’ and ‘Doctors Without Borders’.

    Where it gets sticky and un-fun is when the statement is a bit more bold and demonstrative — albeit that it may be useful (or not) depending on how much you support the statement wrapped up in the news within the sport. Standing or kneeling during the national anthem comes to mind.

    Sports reflects society and can impact change. There was a time where the overwhelming majority of fans preferred to leave well enough alone and enjoy their attendance of a spirting event without getting entangled with the addition and inclusion of blacks on in the lineup. Politics prevailed.

    Sometimes politcal stances can be useful ... with the beauty, usefulness and support of the statement being made in the eye of the beholder. 

  6. Bob Ashpole, January 19, 2018 at 7:11 a.m.

    Youth sports are supposed to teach community values. You can call that political, but telling people to stop teaching values is naive. Kids are going to learn something regardless of adult intent. I would rather that they learn an intended lesson on teamwork and how to compete within rules, rather than learn an unintended lesson on selfishness and how to win by cheat. 

  7. Ray Lindenberg , January 23, 2018 at 10:31 a.m.

    There is a distinction between coaching and instructing. Coaching involves skills instruction PLUS a degree of good values development and reinforcing. Nothing wrong with being a soccer instructor -- just that it's not true, fully-formed coaching that involves the pre-requisite commitment to good values.

    Many, and dare I say most, people that regard themselves as coaches (even trained and licensed ones), are actually instructors since they overlook or forgo the instilling of good values that is central to true coaching -- and quite often they are very honorable, dedicated and effective soccer in their roles as instructors.

    While we're at it, there's nothing wrong with being a soccer-sitter either ... one who supports, encourages and supervises players and teams but offers little in the way of instructing & skills training or values development, nor are they necessarily prepared to offer such.

    Some of the most decent, invaluable contributors to the youth soccer development eco-system are soccer-sitters -- often well-meaning parents and neighbors who take on the challenge by default and because of their own good community values. Our beloved sport would be nowhere without soccer-sitters.

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