Over the last number of years Baltimore has become a major resettlement area for refugees and asylum seekers. And, in particular, several neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore have become especially populated with families forced to relocate due to conflict in their native countries.
Consequently, families from Iraq, Nepal, Bhutan, many African countries and other nations find themselves living together in unfamiliar apartment complexes, with little in common beyond their refugee status.
“There is this huge interest in soccer among many of the young people,” says Jill Pardini. “Soccer is the lynchpin for engaging with these guys and ultimately their families.”
Hoping to utilize this passion to benefit the community, Pardini decided to bring Soccer Without Borders—a California-based program that uses soccer to engage the underserved international community—here to Baltimore.
A year and a half later, Pardini can see that the program is already working.
“At first it was chaos. The Iraqis were all speaking Arabic; the Africans were speaking French; the Eritreans were all together, speaking Tigrinya. There was a lot of tension between the groups,” Pardini says. “Now you have almost a perfect balance between the groups, and they are self-selecting to be with someone who is not of their race, ethnicity or country.”
Pardini will use her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to expand and improve her project—a tutoring, mentoring, cultural-awareness and youth development program that uses organized soccer to help refugees adjust to life in the United States, succeed in and out of school, and stay physically and emotionally fit.
“When they get here (to Baltimore), many of them are met with cold indifference,” Pardini says. “Or there is sometimes, unfortunately, an element of hostility as well. For example, some of the boys can be bullied.”
As a result, many of the young men can become sullen or hostile themselves, or try to fade into the background by dressing and behaving like local teenagers, Pardini says—and not always in the most positive ways. “The idea is for this program to be a cultural liaison, to help them navigate the communities where they live,” Pardini says.
A key component of the soccer program focuses on academics and tutoring.
Students involved in Soccer Without Borders spend evenings during the week or Saturdays studying and getting help with homework. Adult volunteers help the youth overcome language and cultural difficulties.
The 32 participating youth alternate their days practicing academics and soccer. Games are played on weekends.
“We’ve designed it so attendance at tutoring and performance in the classroom is directly related to participation in soccer games,” Pardini says. “You can’t play in the game if you’ve missed tutoring or been in trouble at school.”
Pardini can see the difference soccer—and individual attention—has on the youth, one boy at a time.
When one young man from Eastern Africa joined the group, “he seemed like he had been dragged to practice,” Pardini says. “He wasn’t that great a player, and he didn’t try very hard. He would never come to practice in his gear. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you come dressed in your shorts and shirt, ready to go?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I don’t want people to think I play soccer.’ He had already assimilated to the point where he knew the only ‘cool’ thing to play was basketball or football,” Pardini says.
Because of the Soccer Without Borders program, the young man has blossomed.
“Now he is a regular starter on the team and he consistently shows up already wearing his practice jersey. He’s an outstanding player. He’s transformed his physical look and taken ownership. He’s more confident now,” she says.
During her fellowship, Pardini hopes to expand the program to realize even more successes. She aims to add enough mentors so each young man has someone to connect with one-on-one.
“It’s more than just soccer,” she says. “Now they have this environment where they feel safe, where they have this camaraderie, where they have each other’s back. They have a sense of knowing so many more people and being able to identify with others.”
“It creates this sense of community in a place where there wasn’t one before.”