They are refugees from countries where repressive governments or gangs frightened them to keep quiet. But here, the teenagers at Oakland International High School used their voices – and their new English language skills – to convince officials of the Oakland Unified School District to find them a place to play soccer.

“We speak 32 languages at our school, but everybody speaks the language of soccer,” explained Omar Benitez of Columbia, one of the students who led a campaign in the past year for a field of to play on.

Listen to the student leaders here:

They created a petition and met with school board officials, community members and parent assemblies. “I just recently checked it; it was about 2,400 people signed it,” said student Bolor Erdenebat of Mongolia, who led the petition drive.

This fall, the school district agreed to spend $185,000 to take up cement in a plot behind the school and lay turf for a soccer field for the burgeoning soccer program at the school, which is coached by Soccer Without Borders.

Soccer Without Borders, a nonprofit which brings soccer and its inherent values of teamwork and community building to kids around the world, began the program at Oakland International by invitation of its principal shortly after the school was founded in 2007.  The program has grown so popular at Oakland International that now, between half to two-thirds of the students play and there are four teams in just this tiny school of 400 students.

But as the program grew, practice for the boys’ teams was relegated to a cement top basketball court or to a city park half a mile away. That is because the grassy field behind Oakland International actually belongs to parents of another high school, Oakland Technical High School up the street, who fundraised years ago to create a baseball diamond out of the field for their school’s field-less baseball team.  As its use for soccer grew, concerns arose about the field being torn up by hours of cleat-footed running by the three boys teams. The girls team has been allowed to continue playing on it. 

The boys teams began playing in the cement yard next to it, instead. And when that led to scrapes and injuries, they moved practices to the city’s Mosswood Park where the boys teams now hike three times a week with soccer balls, cones, water and other equipment.

trioThen team members, the Soccer Without Borders coaches, the principal and indeed the whole school including students who don’t play soccer rallied around the cause of creating a field.

“I don’t know how explain what soccer means around here. There is a level of rabidness that my kids have about playing soccer that is beyond explanation,” said Principal Carmelita Reyes.

Coach Ben Gucciardi explains.  “Soccer is a really significant outlet for them. When you think about the dislocation these kids have experienced, the fact that many of them are separated from their families, this can make a huge difference,” Gucciardi said. “They come here and make a new community as a team. This is a place where they can rebuild their lives, learn to communicate even though they speak different languages,” he said.

And they do.

“Soccer is like my whole family,” said student Bishnu Maya Monger of Nepal.

“Soccer is everything,” said Angel Jimenez of Mexico.


This is part two of our series about migrant youth refugees from Central America. Read part one here.
Read how you can help here in this round up of organizational links.

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