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  • Soccer Without Borders

Youth Soccer in Maryland: Barriers to Inclusion & Play for Newcomers

Our goal is for all Soccer Without Borders participants to be able to take full advantage of the program activities we provide. Our programs are all free of cost and, additionally, we invest significant resources in eliminating the most common barriers to participation: transportation, equipment, nutrition, translation, parent permission, and a lack safe spaces. This Spring, our Baltimore program faced a new, complicated barrier: navigating the FIFA International Clearance Process. Below, our Baltimore Director shares her experience:

FIFA recently announced an amendment to the system of registration of players in an attempt to break down barriers for refugees and asylum seekers. Many reacted to the changes positively, suggesting that “the way is clear for young people to join the formal football structure without fear” (Fare Network E.D. Piara Powar). As Director of Soccer Without Borders Baltimore, I read the announcement two months into our grinding, all-hands-on-deck efforts to get clearance for the 56 high school participants- a mix of refugee, asylum-seeking, and new immigrant youth- to play in a state league. Unlike others, my reaction was less hopeful.

Our high school program in Baltimore City has grown significantly over the past several months, with more than enough participants to field two league teams. League play is a major incentive for players; to work together with your teammates toward a common goal over the course of a season is one of sport’s most meaningful experiences. Due to transportation, funding, and registration barriers, over the last few years we’ve relied upon friendly matches and tournaments for game play, but our youth overwhelmingly express the desire to compete in a league.

Unfortunately, Baltimore City lacks recreational leagues for youth. The only options available for our teams are leagues that require us to travel throughout the state of Maryland. This places a major burden on our resources and staff, as nearly all of our participants and their families rely on public transportation throughout Baltimore City to get around.

The only league within the area that has opportunities for our oldest participants to play (Under-20) is the Baltimore Beltway Soccer League (BBSL). This league is affiliated with the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association (MSYSA) under the umbrella of US Soccer, meaning we are required to register each player through MSYSA in order to be eligible to play.

As an organization that serves newcomer refugee, asylee and immigrant youth, all of our players fall into the category of youth born outside the United States. According to MSYSA, this means that the International Clearance process – the process by which FIFA approves refugee, asylee and immigrant youth to play in their new community – is required for all 56 of our players.

Despite the announcement of the change in policy to “remove barriers” for refugee and asylee youth, the International Clearance process has been one of the toughest challenges we have faced. The majority of our players fall into the “Minors International Clearance Process,” which means they are foreign-born, arrived in the U.S. after the age of 10, and were never registered with a club in their home country. The process, detailed here on the US Soccer website, begins with both a player passport and birth certificate. The birth certificate must be in one of the four FIFA languages: English, French, German or Spanish or we need to provide a copy of the original certificate with a certified translation. While there is an understandable need to verify the age of the player, many refugees and unaccompanied minors do not have these original documents and may be assigned a new birthdate (usually January 1st) during the resettlement process. School enrollment is not sufficient verification.

For our non-refugee immigrant participants, however, requirements are even more prohibitive and invasive:

  • Passports for both of the player’s parents

  • Work visas for both of the player’s parents

  • Proof of Residence (Lease or Mortgage agreement) that includes names of occupants, residence start date, and address

  • Proof of Employment for both parents in the form of an employment verification letter that confirms the employment start date, the nature of the work performed, and the term of the employment (ongoing or contracted) or an offer letter that is signed and verified by the employer. Pay stubs are not accepted. If one of the parents does not work, a signed statement from the unemployed parent explaining why he or she is not employed is required.

  • Statement from the player’s parents explaining the reasons and circumstance of their move to the United States, which must be typed and signed by both parents.

Our players’ families are not eager to share such personal information, and the language barrier makes it a challenge for us to explain the need for these documents – especially for something as simple as playing soccer.

Our first attempt to meet these requirements included asking the kids to bring us the required documents (often their families’ only legal identification). Not surprisingly, this effort resulted in minimal success. Next, we spent weeks going to every player’s house after practice, which took several weeks to reach everyone at a reasonable hour after evening practices and often required multiple trips to the same houses. Documents were copied, sent to the registrar at MSYSA, who then passed them to US Soccer, who then passed them to FIFA for approval.

The first batch of documents (complete files for 13 of our players) was sent in early February. Over a month later, of those 13 players whose documents were submitted, only those over the age of 18 and not subject to this restrictive process for minors were cleared. We’ve had to go back to families for additional documents and new copies, all of which adds up to frustration and lost time and energy for staff, players, and families.

For many of my immigrant players, soccer is one of the only things that brings them joy – and they are giving up on their hopes of playing on our team because of the burden of proof they’re being asked to provide. For those in single-parent families, the burden is essentially insurmountable, and puts our staff in the impossible position of asking for deeply personal information across language barriers.

FIFA’s changes to the system of registration to avoid notifying refugees’ country of origin of their new location is one step forward in removing barriers for displaced youth. However, it is far from a comprehensive solution to the barriers to inclusion that refugee and immigrant youth face.

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