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Sara Diaz de Sandi, Spring 2013 Students

Soccer helps refugees in San Diego adapt to new life

By: Sara Diaz de Sandi

18-year-old John Ramzy says he doesn’t know how to explain his love of playing soccer.

“I don’t know how to tell you,” Ramzy said, trying to catch his breath from running during his soccer practice at the El Cajon Valley High School sports field. “It’s just my game, you know. I can’t describe it.”

With that, Ramzy, who’s originally from Iraq, ran away to join the rest of his teammates—teammates who, like Ramzy, aren’t from San Diego but from war-torn regions throughout the world: the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. They all came to San Diego as refugees and, in the process of learning how to adjust to a new life, discovered soccer is their true haven.

Youth and Leaders Living Actively

Ramzy and his teammates are members of Youth and Leaders Living Actively, a nonprofit in San Diego, Calif., that uses soccer to motivate child survivors of war and immigrant children rebuild their lives.

Coach Arsim Mustafa of Youth and Leaders Living Actively talks about coming to San Diego as a refugee. He also talks about how soccer helps the kids settle into a new life.

Founded by Mark Kabban in 2009, YALLA, which, in Arabic, means ‘let’s go,’ uses soccer to bring child survivors of war and immigrant children from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America together to play, build community and start a new life.

Kabban’s family is Lebanese. He was born in the United States but did live in Lebanon after the Lebanese civil war, which started in 1975, ended in 1990. After about five years, Kabban and his family moved to San Diego so Kabban and his siblings could attend school in the U.S.

Kabban majored in political science and Russian studies at the University of Kansas. When he graduated, Kabban returned to San Diego, initially only for the summer. His plans changed when he learned that in the four years he had been gone at college, San Diego had become the largest city for permanent resettlement of refugees in the U.S.

So, Kabban began to work as a refugee case manager and did so until 2009.

Kabban said he decided to start YALLA because he realized schooling in a new country was stressful for refugee children, who didn’t have many outside opportunities to learn English or make friends.

“The kids struggle with a whole new language when they come to the United States,” Kabban said. “I felt like soccer was a great tool to motivate these young people to do the things that they see are more difficult and that don’t come so easy to them,” adding that the majority of the refugees enrolled in YALLA are from the Middle East—specifically, Iraq.

William Mosqueda, YALLA’s head coach, said playing soccer makes it easier for the kids to socialize and, therefore, make friends.

“Many kids come from extreme circumstances and after two or three months, they’re really engaged,” Mosqueda said. “It really exposes them to kind of trusting again and working within a group again and just having the chance to be a kid.”

Mosqueda also said playing helps refugees start to pick up the new language.

“They get exposed more to communicating in English within the context of the sport so they start getting a certain comfort, learning more English.”

San Diego Refugee Statistics 

Refugee arrivals into San Diego for the 2013 federal fiscal year (to date). Total: 1,424

Refugee arrivals into San Diego for the 2013 federal fiscal year (to date). Total: 1,424

The 2013 federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30. San Diego has admitted more refugees this fiscal year than any other county in California. Following San Diego are:

  • Los Angeles: 672
  • Sacramento: 306
  • Santa Clara: 195

International Rescue Committee

The same goes for the boys on the International Rescue Committee’s soccer program in San Diego.

The program was started seven years ago and since then, every Friday during the school year, the refugees get together to play soccer. The majority of them are from these east African countries:

  • Kenya
  • Somalia
  • Ethiopia
  • Eritrea

Brendan Fenton, the education coordinator for the IRC, said the program was started to motivate the boys on Friday afternoons, after long hours of tutoring.

He said playing has helped the boys improve their English-speaking skills.

“When we’re out there playing, obviously some of the students still use their own language and that’s fine,” Fenton said. “But a lot of the times we intentionally mix the groups ethnically so if they want to communicate with a teammate or anyone on the other team, generally the common language is English.”

Fenton also said he notices how soccer makes it easier for the boys to get along.

“There’s been friendships made across cultures,” Fenton said. “They have classes together too but soccer gives them another bond, something else they can talk about or something else they realize they have in common.”

The emotional benefits of sports 

Diaz Ceballos practices every day. At the end of every practice, he likes to stretch.

Diaz Ceballos practices every day. At the end of every practice, he likes to stretch.

Usually, the physical benefits of playing sports—increased strength and stamina and better body shape, to name a few—are more often pointed out than the psychological benefits of playing sports, according to sports psychologist Ross Flowers.

“Sports can also enhance your self-awareness, your confidence level, they help you with communication,” Flowers said. “It can help you develop relationships. A lot of team-building can be done with individuals through sports.”

Flowers said playing sports also helps build nonverbal communication.

“They may have all learned the game differently but when they come together there’s a common language of sport,” Flowers said. “There’s a common language of just a look like, ‘Ok, give me the lead pass.’ There’s a feeling of just being on a field and knowing a game that they can share.”

Jose Miguel Diaz Ceballos, a 10-year-old boy who moved to San Diego from Mexico two years ago, said playing has made it easier for him to get used to living in a new country because it helps him remember what it was like back home.

Jose Miguel Diaz Ceballos talks how soccer has helped him adapt to his new life in San Diego. He says even though he misses Mexico, playing soccer here helps him remember his home and make friends.

“Me and my teammates, we all know the game so it helps me remember what it was like in Mexico,” Diaz Ceballos said. “I’ve also made a lot of friends.”

For Kabban, playing together makes the boys feel like they’re not alone in the new transition in their lives.

“They get to be around other kids who are going through the same things that they have gone through,” Kabban said. “They feel like they have another family.”

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