When Jill Pardini started a soccer program for refugees living in Northeast Baltimore, she knew her idea was more than just about cleats and goalies. But in the four years since she’s been running Soccer Without Borders, even she has been surprised at how much more the program has become.
Today, Soccer Without Borders is not just a tutoring, mentoring, cultural-awareness and youth development program that uses organized soccer to help refugees adjust to life in the United States, do well in and out of school, and stay physically and emotionally fit.
It is a connector, creating community for a disparate group of boys and their families, who have fled to the United States from such places as Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and many other countries.
It is a comfort, for the boys—many of whom experience either cold indifference from their new American peers, or outright hostility—and for their parents, who know their children will be safe for the few hours between school and home that can be so dangerous for some.
And it is a college of sorts, teaching these not-yet-men how to be leaders on and off the field, and how to navigate a world of unknowns.
Jill’s program took off with the help of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore’s Community Fellowship program, which gave $60,000 for 18 months, allowing Jill to dedicate herself full-time to this, her passion.
“There are venture capitalists in the tech world or the Internet world, who are all willing to take risks,” she says. “Nobody’s doing it when it’s talking about social capital or people who are trying to make human’s lives better. Except for OSI. There’s no possible way that this would have taken off the way that it has without their support.”
Today she is proud and humbled to say that her program is helping to create friendships, leaders and, most importantly, community.
“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.”
Glory Barongozi, 16, came to Baltimore in 2009 from war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Jill says Glory exhibited leadership qualities from the first day she held camp and he arrived as a 7th-grader, lanky, all limbs, smiling at everyone. He was precocious and able, Jill says, always asking the challenging questions. He did well in school, but he was quiet there, preferring to keep to himself and avoid attention. Without a place to shine like Soccer without Borders, Jill says, Glory probably would not have had a space to exhibit that leadership.
Glory echoes his coach’s sentiments.
“It’s hard coming to a new country, going to a new school, not speaking the language. Before SWB, Ohmigod, I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I want to get out of middle school and high school so I can just go to college and start my life.’ I was just going through the days. If I didn’t come here, I would just be in my house, on my computer, watching TV all day.”
When they get to Baltimore, many refugees are met with cold indifference. “And,” Jill says, “there is, unfortunately, an element of hostility as well. Some of the boys can be bullied.”
As a result, many of the young men 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.
“It is difficult,” Glory says. “I went through a lot of stuff, without a Dad, just my mom and my sisters and brother. War was every day in the streets,” Glory says. “But here [in the United States] it is even harder, if you can believe it. There are no people trying to kill you, but you’re in a place where you know no one, literally no one. You have nothing.”
Soccer Without Borders allows Glory, the baby of his family, time away from the pressures of being a newcomer in a strange, and not always-welcoming, land. It gives him time that he doesn’t have to think about being of help to his single mother, or of navigating the politics of high school, or of the sometimes hostility of the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood where he lives.
On the soccer field, Glory is allowed to be just a boy, with a ball, in the sun.
Baltimore has become a major center for refugee resettlement. Between 2005 and 2009, nearly 4,000 refugees from 44 different countries were resettled in Maryland and more than 40 percent of those came to Baltimore.
In 2011, the city took in more than 1,000 refugees—and settled them, primarily, in Northeast Baltimore.
“The thinking is this will be instant community: ‘Obviously, you will all identify with being a refugee,’” Jill says.
But Glory says refugees often find it even harder to connect. Language is a barrier, as is religion. But mostly, the refugees are eager to be recognized as part of the American fabric, not as one of a group of people who are just as different as they are.
But through the program—where Jill says they are “shoved together and forced to work together”—barriers are broken down. Boys from Iraq find common ground with boys from Eritrea. Boys from Somalia discover a sameness with boys from Nepal.
On the soccer field, they share the language of sneakers, shorts and sweat.
On the soccer field, they become friends.
Jill is the center of Soccer Without Border’s success. She works 12-13 hour days every day, coaching, mentoring, lining up partnerships and funding, convincing other young people to come volunteer with the boys, in some way—on or off the field.
She is most often sans make-up, scratched and bruised, her hair pulled back unceremoniously, off her sweat-glistening face.
“It’s not a job where you’re punching in and out,” she says. “I invest 100-percent of myself in this, in these kids.”
In April, Jill was recognized by the Daily Record as one of its “20 in Their Twenties,” based on professional accomplishment, civic involvement and impact of achievement. The independent panel of judges said that Jill and Soccer Without Borders was contributing to “a new energy in Maryland.”
This fall, Glory is headed into the 11th-grade. He is a leader both on the field and in the classroom. Last year, he was invited to take part in the Hoby Student Leadership Council, an honor reserved for exceptional students whose teachers believe they possess the skills to take advantage of unique leadership training, service-learning and motivation-building experiences.
Jill is unabashedly proud of Glory. She’s watched him grow and mature for nearly 4 years. She swells when telling the story of how a fellow teammate from Nepal joined the wrestling team at Digital Harbor High School. He wanted badly to wrestle, but confessed that he was afraid to walk home after school by himself.
So Glory, Jill says, uninterested in wrestling, joined the team. Now Glory and his teammate walk home together.
“Soccer Without Borders helped me in everything,” Glory says. “When I came here I was lost. I didn’t have any friends. I was bullied. Now I have friends. I have things to do. I learned English quicker. They help me with academic stuff.
“But the most important thing is having something I belong to, being a part of something. This is my team. We’re always together—like a family.”
About the photographer
Colby Ware is a freelance photographer living in Baltimore. See more of his work at colbyware.com.
Soccer Without Borders is more than just a tutoring, mentoring, cultural-awareness and youth development program that uses organized soccer to help refugees adjust to life in Baltimore, do well in and out of school, and stay physically and emotionally fit. It is a haven and community-builder for a disparate group of boys and their families, who have fled to the United States from many challenged countries.
Glory Barongozi, 16, is one of those boys.