A gaggle of middle school girls are running around a soccer field in East Oakland. The scene is a blur of ponytails and mismatched cleats. Some of the girls wear a yellow chalky sunscreen in stripes across their face. It’s called thanaka, a powdered root that’s popular in Burma.
They’re chasing each other as part of a warm-up soccer drill, heeding the instructions from a young woman named Maryium.
Maryium wears a bright yellow t-shirt and a deep blue hijab. Her family is Afghani, but she grew up in Pakistan, where her parents moved to escape the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. She’s here today with Soccer Without Borders, an after-school program for kids in Oakland’s refugee community. Students in Soccer Without Borders speak more than 42 languages, and hail from countries like Cambodia, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Yemen. Most of them live in the diverse neighborhoods of East Oakland.
San Francisco native Ben Guccardi founded Soccer Without Borders in 2006. It has since gone national. You can find him at the entrance of the field, sorting out who needs gear, a granola bar, a permission slip. He greets each kid with the a bear hug and an affable “Hello my friend! How are you doing?” Guccardi himself is a soccer player, but he started this program to do something beyond getting kids to exercise. He wants their experience on the field to reinforce their work in the classroom.
“I think soccer is really unique to teach to a lot of these kids because they care,” explains Guccardi. “They're bought in.”
‘It’s a point of leverage’
The students in Soccer Without Borders need that buy-in because, for many refugees and asylum seekers, school isn’t easy. Beyond the language barrier there can be trauma, with many students experiencing violence in their home countries. Maryam, for instance, fled Pakistan after the Taliban started targeting local schools for girls, bombing the one right next to hers.
“It was very dangerous. I didn’t go to school for one month because they said they were going to destroy all girl schools,” says Maryium. “It was better to stay at home.”
For others, violence both drove them from homes and marked their journeys here. High school senior Mateo left Honduras, a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. When he was just 14, he traveled the migrant trail through Central America and Mexico alone.
“It's dangerous,” he recounted. “Sometimes you meet good people and bad.”
Those bad people included members of one of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartels, known to kidnap and extort undocumented immigrants making their way to the US. Mateo had no idea who to trust, but in each new town, in each new country, he’d see people playing pickup games.
“I see them and I say ‘Can I play?’ and they say yes,” he remembers.
Soccer allowed him to make helpful relationships as he made his way to the U.S. Eventually he arrived here safely. Once he settled in Oakland, though, learning English and dealing with his difficult memories made it hard for Mateo to focus on school. Sometimes he’d just get and up and try to leave class. He started failing, and his principal told him that he was on the brink of expulsion.
One big motivator to do better? Mateo loved Soccer Without Borders, and in order to be part of the team, he had to get passing marks. Coach Ben Guccardi explains that incentive is a big part of why the program exists.
“It's a point of leverage,” he tells me. “A lot of time what teachers struggle with with more challenging students is there no leverage.”
Guccardi drew up a contract for Mateo, one that his teachers signed every time he came to class and participated.
“Mr. Ben was always checking the contracts and saying you have to improve this and this one,” Mateo says.”
He did. He pulled up his grades, and was able to play again. As Guccardi sees it, that’s the aim of this program.
“They're a lot of great things about soccer itself but if we're not connecting it to the academic piece and trying to support what's happening during the school day, which is where they are most of the time, then we are not doing our job,” he says.
Beyond academic achievement, the program seeks to make kids feel less isolated in their adjustment to the U.S. Mateo isn’t the only one on his team who crossed the border by himself. Here, he has a community of people who can relate to his story. He talks with his teammates about how many buses they took during their journeys, how many days they traveled. He says it’s not always easy to share -- it can feel bad in the moment -- but he feels better afterward.
Though there are these points of connection, each student in Soccer Without Borders has a different story. Maryium, for instance, came to this country with family, but she still struggled with the loneliness and confusion of migration. When she first got to school -- not speaking English and unused to a co-ed school -- she was extremely shy. On one of her first days at school she made a friend who also played on the soccer team: Fatuma Hussein, who’s Somalian by way of Kenya. Eventually they became best friends.
“She came six months before me so she knew English, and so she would explain to me with her gestures and her hands,” Maryium recounts.
Maryium pushed herself to learn English faster, just so that they she could openly communicate with Fatuma.
“She’s the first person I felt so close to after coming to America,” Fatuma chimes in.
Both she and Maryium graduated from Oakland International High School, where Soccer Without Borders is based. Now, they’re coaches, hired to help run the organization’s week long summer camp.
Fatuma shows me some of the drills she teaches her students -- how to head the ball, how to practice quick foot work, how to juggle. But her bigger job is to teach young players to put themselves out there, the way she did when she first arrived. She recounts a recent conversation she had with one of her mentees.
“She couldn't talk with other people and I just made her talk,” Fatuma says. “[I said] ‘It's okay, you know English! You don't have to be shy.’”
When she’s talking to me, her little sister keeps close, her toes tapping the top of the soccer ball just like Fatuma taught her.
A growing phenomenom
The number of newcomers -- students who have been in the U.S. for three years or less -- enrolling in the OUSD has dramatically increased in recent years. A lot of this has to do with the systemic gang violence terrorizing Central America. The district has set up newcomer programs within elementary, middle and high schools to try and meet the baseline needs of these students, but it’s still a work in progress, and extracurricular programs that boost the amount of support these students receive is limited.
The high school drop-out rate amongst newcomers is high, especially amongst unaccompanied minors. For the students who came here entirely alone, they often need to provide both for themselves and family back home, which means the imperative to work and survive overshadows the prospect of higher education. That’s a rough reality for educators, counselors, and coaches to navigate, and an ongoing question that doesn’t have easy answers. It comes as a relief then, to know there’s a field in East Oakland where academic and personal support are woven into the world’s most popular sport.