All Over the Map: American immigrant stories in unexpected places
Born to Play: A Refugee Soccer Team Grows in the American Desert
As 17-year-old goalie Zara Doukoum swings her right leg back for a fierce kick up a north Phoenix soccer field, 13-year-old Win La Bar is grappling for a ball with his buddies at the other end to show off their footwork.
Violence displaced both of their families, thousands of kilometers apart. Now the teens are practicing on the same pitch under the pinks and oranges of a desert sunset on a Friday night before their first games of the season. They run through drills after dark with dozens of other players to the muffled soundtrack of cheering and thunderous drums from a nearby American football game.
The players are old enough to remember — not where their parents were born, but where they sought refuge. For Zara, it’s Gabon, not Chad. For Win, Thailand instead of Myanmar.
“You don’t know where people came from,” explains Zara, a high school senior. “You don’t know the life they had before.”
They are still young enough, though, to make the decisions that will shape their new American lives. For nearly 200 refugee children in Arizona — a leading state for resettlement — one of those choices is to play for the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club.
Ask Win La Bar where he is from and he will tell you in his deepening voice, “a Karenni refugee camp in Thailand.”
“It’s very poor. Not a lot of things you see in America,” he says. “It’s like mostly all nature, no electricity.”
The Karenni ethnic group’s horizontally-striped red, white and blue flag hangs in the family’s Phoenix apartment living room. Nearby is a drawing of Jesus, arms outstretched, and four rosaries hanging from a pushpin, alongside a photo of Win’s maternal grandmother in traditional Karenni dress.
“My parents were from Burma,” Win explains. “Several wars were going on. It was dangerous, so they had to flee from their home and just go somewhere that they could, so they just ended up in Thailand. And then I was born.”
He’s never been to Myanmar, though he says he’d like to visit. The family came to Phoenix about five years ago, following relatives who resettled in the area earlier. The soccer club helped him make friends and navigate his new life in Arizona, and the coaches taught the family how to figure out life in the U.S., like getting food benefits and car insurance.
“It was very different, very hard to adapt into this world… it’s hard to understand, ‘cuz I’d never seen stuff here, like cars or plane, those things… it’s very different from where I used to live,” the teen says.
His mother doesn’t speak English, or write in her own language, Karenni. The children translate for her as needed. Win doesn’t remember how he learned English, but one of the coaches has tutored him and his younger brothers since the family arrived. Now he gets top grades, A’s mostly.
“I love it here, because I’ve got a better chance to get a better education, and get to play more soccer, without worrying about gunshots.”
– Win La Bar, 13
Ten family members live between two neighboring apartments on a dusty lot in Phoenix; Win, the middle child of six, is the only one who has his own bedroom. His soccer sanctuary is across the hall from where his sister sleeps with her three young children. Across a breezeway is a second apartment the family rents in a four-plex building, where Win’s parents and three younger siblings split two bedrooms.
His is a rare quiet space for two households bustling with a half-dozen children under the age of 12. European football team posters — Germany mostly, — cover the walls lined with soccer trophies and medals he’s happy to take down for a closer look. He was the most valuable player one year, he shows off with an easy smile that fades when he’s hyper-focused on the field as his spindly legs are wheeling under him on defense. He’d like to play professionally.
“I love it here, because I’ve got a better chance to get a better education, and get to play more soccer, without worrying about gunshots,” Win says. “I don’t want to have the same thing my parents had to go through.”
Friday Night Lights
Two hours after Friday night’s practice begins, the massive floodlights snap off with an electrical pop. The footballers play until the last second possible, when it’s so dark their silhouettes fade against the night as they walk gingerly towards the coaches’ cars.
Alondra Ruiz will spend the next few hours criss-crossing Phoenix in her silver Dodge van, dropping off the same teenagers she picked up earlier in the evening. During soccer season, this is the routine. She logs hundreds of kilometers behind the steering wheel each week, her 1-year-old grandson strapped into a carseat in the middle row. It’s so much time on the road that she knows where the cleanest stops are to take a bathroom break, get a snack, and change the baby’s diaper.
In front of players’ apartment complexes or houses, Ruiz is constantly hopping out to greet the mothers – it’s always the mothers – as she hustles to gather the team members, their socks, cleats and often, siblings – for evening practices or sun-drenched games in the middle of the desert afternoon.
“I love our rides in the car, they ask a lot of questions, like ‘how does this work?’ I get the opportunity to teach kids things that maybe their parents can’t answer,” says Ruiz.
Officially, she is the club’s administrator. In practice she is tutor, activities coordinator, chauffeur, and counselor. She tells the teens, “You’re not different, you’re here. And you can become anything you want.”
Ruiz knows the challenges of growing up as an immigrant child in the Southwest U.S.
“I listen a lot when I’m driving,” she says. “What I hear often is that they’re being treated different at school, that they’re not being accepted. I relate to that 100%. I wasn’t accepted coming from Mexico.”
She’s married now, with two grown children. She’s still undocumented, but getting by. Her husband, who also arrived as a child from Mexico, has work papers and a good job keeping the grounds at a local college.
But when it comes to how immigrants are treated in Arizona, a hard-talking local sheriff, Joe Arpaio, made national headlines with controversial enforcement programs targeting immigrants. An expert for the Justice Department accused him of “the most egregious racial profiling in the United States” he had ever seen.
Then, the November attacks in Paris that killed 130 people were erroneously linked early in the investigation to at least one Syrian refugee, prompted a majority of U.S. governors — among them, Arizona Republican Governor Doug Ducey — to call for curbs on refugees coming to the U.S. State officials can’t ban refugees, but that hasn’t stopped anti-refugee statements from elected officials around the country.
Ducey’s comments, though, belie the state’s successful resettlement of more than 70,000 refugees from scores of countries in recent decades.
Historically, Arizona punches above its weight when it comes to welcoming refugees. State Department data shows it has taken in over 33,000 refugees since 2002, making it the 7th highest state for resettlement behind Texas, California, New York, Minnesota, Florida and Washington.
Refugees admitted by Arizona from 2002-2015
(Source: U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center)
And the soccer club reflects the diversity among the refugees. Arizona has accepted 13 nationalities in the last year alone. Between players born in the U.S., Latin America, and resettled refugees, the teams represent more than a dozen countries this year. Ruiz counts players from at least 24 countries in the club’s history.
|Central African Republic||Chad|
|Afghanistan||Bangladesh||Bhutan||Bosnia||Central African Republic|
For Zara Doukoum, that variety is why she joined when she arrived from Gabon, where she was born after her family fled from Chad. Her teammates and coaches give her a sense of community that goes beyond what she has in school, and like Win, she finds comfort in fellow English-learners.
“I related to them because people didn’t understand me, too, when I speak English… every refugee in America went through that,” she explains. “We can actually relate better because we know where we come from, we know what our life was like before.”
This spring, Zara will graduate from Central High School, the public school attended by most of her teammates — whom she calls her “sisters” on the field; it will be four years since she arrived in Phoenix with her mother and three actual sisters, and seven years after her father’s early death from hernia complications.
She wants to go to college, she doesn’t care where. Maybe she’ll play soccer, or tennis.
“If that doesn’t work for me, I see myself just helping around, giving back to the community the way people give to me,” she says.
Playing sports is how she feels she can express herself. Her attitude — impassioned, demanding excellence from her teammates — shows when she’s bellowing at them from beneath the goal frame to play better, to run harder.
“We are stronger than what you guys think we are.”
Zara Doukoum, goalie
Midway through the season opener after a bad first half, the team gathers around her and their coach as Zara vents. But she’s alert to others’ attitudes, too.
“When we first came, we never won a game. Some parents… they were laughing at us when we were playing on the field. But those things didn’t touch us. They make us (become) stronger,” she explains.
That’s why the team created a goal this year, Zara says.
“We have to go hard, to prove a point, like ‘we can do it. We are stronger than what you guys think we are’.”
When Myles Grunewald took over the club about 25 years ago, he didn’t set out to make it a hub for young refugees. While picking his grandson up from church a few years back, the retired engineer saw six boys playing outside. They were brothers and cousins, part of a refugee family from Myanmar.
“I noticed they had tremendous touch on the ball. So I went to the pastor, and I said, ‘Could I talk to the boys about playing in our club? I saw that they really liked to play,’” Grunewald recalls.
Grunewald found a soft spot for children in need long before his club turned into a beacon for resettled teens anxious to play but lacking the hundreds of dollars club soccer can cost each season. He and his wife adopted two children from a Christian orphanage in Korea when he served there in the U.S. military in the 1960s.
Although it’s called the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club, religion isn’t a requirement. Practice on a Thursday night in September starts with a few words Grunewald calls a “devotion,” or prayer. But the coaches know not all the children will participate. They also know they aren’t all Christian. It’s the only time talk of religion comes up.
“They learn that there is a god who loves them, that hard work can get them something… that they have to apply themselves in school,” Grunewald says.
Word about the free club spread through players’ families and friends, across apartment complexes and schools. Now Grunewald stashes dozens of used cleats at his house for players each year who otherwise couldn’t afford them, rotating through the pile as their feet grow. The youngest players in the club’s 12 teams are 6 years old; the oldest, 18. Along with Ruiz and her husband, the coaches transport most players to and from practices and games.
“Knowing they can be here on the soccer field rather than walking around on the streets like I did at times… I would just hang out, pretty much waste time and do nothing, I wasn’t accomplishing things,” Ruiz says. “Being part of this club, and keeping kids busy is very rewarding to me, because it’s good for them, and it’s good for the future.”
Refugee children are navigating their family’s culture in a new place. But no matter where they were born, explains Collin Cunningham, Executive Director of the Welcome to America Project, teens are trying to figure out what their identity is, and what social circle they want to cultivate. The soccer field doesn’t discriminate based on how good your English is or what kind of house your family can afford.
And in talking with clients through her organization, which provides services and donations to help refugees settle into their new lives in the Phoenix area, Cunningham says newly arrived parents often feel more comfortable with their children participating in a highly structured activity – especially one where they are picked up and dropped off.
For years after they arrive, the median income for refugee households is 42 percent of the U.S. population, according to research by the Migration Policy Institute. After a decade or two, the families become more self sufficient and reach 87 percent of the US-born income, MPI reports.
“Refugee youth have limited opportunities to be involved in extracurriculars… they haven’t grown up in a culture where that is something they do,” she explains.
Grunewald is matter-of-fact about it. “If we don’t pick them up, they don’t get here.”
“Some of them have bus passes, but we don’t want them out by themselves at nighttime. So, we make an effort,” he adds.
He’d rather be on the field than idling away his retirement years, anyway.
A former engineer, Grunewald personally pays much of the $20,000-$30,000 needed annually to keep most of the 200 players enrolled in the league.
“We know they can’t afford to pay it,” Ruiz says of the families. “We will never decline a kid or tell him he can’t play because of the lack of paying.”
Most of the refugee families are still early in their U.S. lives, living in subsidized housing while they tackle the economic challenges of starting over in a new country. A lot of the parents work as janitors, dishwashers or grocery store baggers, Ruiz explains — low-paying jobs that demand a lot of hours to make ends meet every month.
“I could count on one hand probably the ones that are financially stable,” Ruiz says.
But more than the money, it’s the time coaches like Grunewald devote to the players that impresses Zara.
“God just sent him (out) to help refugees… he doesn’t want us to be on the street, doing drugs, doing anything that teenagers could do. He wants us to be here to enjoy ourselves.”
Ruiz admits she’s no psychology expert. But she spends at least 20 hours a week in the car with many of the players.
“They’re definitely not bad kids, but sometimes they put up a front and I think it’s more like a protection type of thing. I have a feeling that that’s what they do in school, so they try and bring that in the club,” she says.
There’s never been a physical fight, but it’s come close. Over time, she notices the tension usually dissipates, but players have walked off the field angry in the middle of a game. It can embarrass the coaches, Ruiz says, “but only we know what we’re dealing with compared to what other clubs deal with.”
“That’s where we come in and teach them that that’s not going to be acceptable here. That it doesn’t matter what part of the world they’re from, they have to get along, and we’re all the same inside.”
For years, refugee programs in the U.S. focused on making the adults economically self-sufficient, says Dina Berman, a professor at the University of Miami who researches child refugee education and writes for the Migration Policy Institute. But until 15 years ago, officials weren’t paying much attention to kids.
Placing them in schools is complicated, she explains. The refugee camps where they grew up may not have had strong education systems, and their ages don’t necessarily align with the equivalent grade level in the U.S. A few school systems in major urban centers, like New York City and Los Angeles, have special programs to bring refugee students up to speed, but “we don’t have an institutionalized way in a lot of places to address these issues,” Birman says.
Win La Bar lived it. He had a hard time when he started school in the U.S. He felt people didn’t understand him.
“When I go to school and I meet new people, (at first), they don’t really have respect for me,” Win says. “But as they get to know me, they have a better feeling for me, and became, like, good to me.”
Having a third-party adult, like a coach or a teacher, can be “very helpful” for adolescent refugees, Birman says, “particularly if the parents are stressed out.”
“The biggest thing you can do is… not to leave them hanging,” echoes Grunewald, the head coach. “If you tell them you’re going to do something, then do it. If it turns out that you can’t do it, make sure that they know that. Always follow through.”
The players count on that reliability.
“If you call him up and say ‘Hey coach, can you come pick me up?’…he won’t say no to you,” Zara says. “He will just come, because he wants the best out of you. He wants you to be successful in life.”
When Zara shouts at her teammates on defense in the first half of the season opener, her mother and sisters aren’t watching. The coaches are the only ones on the sidelines. Some parents work nights and weekends. And Birman, the researcher, says they may not know yet that in the U.S., parents usually make a point of attending children’s games.
From across the city, Ruiz texts to say the boys’ team lost as well. But they’ll finish the season a few months later proudly third in their division. Good enough, possibly, to bump them up to the top division.
Players usually age out of NPCSC at 18, so 2015-2016 is Zara’s last season with the club. But Win, who dreams of going pro, has five more years.
“I’m thankful to God to have them in my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t even play soccer if Alondra and Myles weren’t here.”
If former team members are any indication, NPCSC players never forget their teams. They post nostalgically on the club’s Facebook page. “I miss this club so much,” writes one.
Nineteen-year-old Eh T. Thay, who graduated from high school in 2015 after playing with the club since he arrived in Arizona in 2008, still keeps in touch with his coaches.
“For me it was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Thay says.
When his family, Karenni refugees originally from Myanmar, returned to Thailand in 2014 after six years in the U.S., Thay chose to remain in Arizona, where a former teacher offered him a place to stay while he pursues a two-year college degree in the medical field. Restarting his life back where it began just didn’t make sense to him anymore, like it did to his parents.
“I feel more American now because I think I grew up here,” says Thay. “I feel more American than Burmese.”
Denayi Shenger, 21, played with the club for seven years after his family arrived in Phoenix in 2007, fleeing from Eritrea to Ethiopia before making it to the U.S. He now coaches Team Mercury, the only NPCSC all-girls team.
“Back home,” he says, there was no soccer turf or cleats. “We just made the ball with bags, a bunch of paper towels.”
“It feels so blessed,” he adds. “We’d never have this opportunity in our places, our countries.”
More from Phoenix
Their families fled war-torn countries and refugee camps for the United States. Today, these kids score big on the field, learning skills for their new American lives.
A look at the demographics that make Arizona welcoming to foreign-born citizens.
Where in the world is Phoenix? Well, it’s along the Sonoran Desert. Where’s that? Well, click play.
He hails from Mexico, but Jose Ramon Lopez Carbajal moved to Phoenix and opened a hot dog stand. Some people told us he serves the best ones in town. Here’s what you need to know about the Sonoran-style hot dog.
About the Project
“All Over the Map” is an ongoing multimedia project produced by VOA’s News Center that explores lesser-known immigration stories and immigrant communities around the United States. Email the team:email@example.com
For behind-the-scenes stories and photos, follow the project on:
About the Reporting Team
Victoria Macchi is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining VOA in 2014, Victoria worked as a journalist in the Middle East, South America, and her home state of Florida, where she covered immigration. She is a two-time fellow with the International Center for Journalists, speaks fluent Spanish and French, and is finishing a Masters degree in human rights at Columbia University.
Arash Arabasadi is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a decade of experience shooting, producing, writing and editing. He has reported from conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Ukraine, as well as domestically in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. Arash has also been a guest lecturer at Howard University, Hampton University, and his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Ashley and their two dogs.