Kicking Into American Culture

The Somali Bantu team and some of their young fans.
The Somali Bantu team and some of their young fans.
Featured Audio

SOUND: Soccer game up-close, running with the players to get the sounds of their grunting and panting. UP & UNDER

The action is intense as two teams of black teenagers use some fancy footwork to fight over a soccer ball in Lakewood Park, west of Cleveland. They're challenging each other now, but they'll be working together as a team in a match this weekend against rivals from Columbus, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

SOUND: up, then under

These teens are members of the Somali Bantu ethnic group who were resettled here by the U.S. State Department, starting in 2003. Abdinoor Abdulahi says the terror of his homeland was unimaginable.

ABDINOOR ABDULAHI: They come to your house and they make on fire your house. And you can do nothing. If you try to talk they will kill you.

When they arrived almost five years ago, none of these players could speak English, and few of them even knew what electricity was. At first, they felt isolated in the alien landscape of America. Soccer has helped change that.

TOM MROSKO: It kind of "levels the playing field", so to speak.

Tom Mrosko heads Migration and Refugee Services for Cleveland Catholic Charities.

TOM MROSKO: Everybody knows how to play it. It's a common language. Some of the children and young adults who come here are tremendous soccer players.

Abdinoor says his soccer skills have made him a big man on campus at Lincoln-West high school.

ABDINOOR ABDULAHI: Playing soccer makes you special, because you do some tricks in soccer and people say, "How could you do that? Can you show me?" And you can be a coach to that person.

Sports have proven to be an important element in promoting community. Suhail Mustafa is a volunteer from the Islamic Center of Cleveland who spends a lot of time here mentoring the young men. He says Somali Bantus from around the country started to play matches, several years ago.

SUHAIL MUSTAFA: A Bantu Somali team from some other city would come in and they would have a match somewhere in Cleveland. They were managing to communicate among themselves and arranging these games. And they really took pride because they're real good in soccer. With all their difficulties, when they are on the soccer field, they are the best.

SOUND: soccer practice

This weekend, there will be an all-day play-off in the Rocky River reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks featuring the Greater Cleveland team and its national competitors. The local players have been looking for sponsors to underwrite uniforms. And Suhail Mustafa says these events aren't cheap.

SUHAIL MUSTAFA: They tend to be a little bit expensive because you have to pay for the referee, you have to pay for the ground, but within their limited resources they manage to somehow have these games. The games are the source of a lot of pride for them.

For Tom Mrosko of Catholic Charities, this example of the community-building power of sports brings to mind stories he's heard from relatives about his own Slovak heritage. He says it also brings to mind something that a lot of Americans tend to forget.

TOM MROSKO: That most of us came over here or were a descendant of somebody who came over here as an immigrant, and that our grandparents all struggled to fit into this society, and make it what it is today.

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