Today is World Refugee Day, an international day of recognition organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Oftentimes, this day provides advocates with an opportunity to bring the issue of global displacement to the forefront of collective hearts and minds. Each year, UNHCR releases its most recent global trends report, detailing the sobering scope of global displacement and the crises driving its upward trend. In this year's report, they share that “there are at least 89.3 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 27.1 million refugees, around 41% of whom are under the age of 18.” That is 1 in every 88 people on Earth.
At SWB, we are dedicated to the mission of using soccer to be a vehicle for positive change. Our evidence-based programming and trauma-informed coaching strategies are designed to create a safe space for refugee, asylee, and newcomer youth–to create a space where they can heal, where they can find belonging, and where they can celebrate new beginnings.
Today, in recognition of World Refugee Day, we are celebrating and honoring the refugees, former refugees, asylum seekers, and newcomers in our SWB family. Each and every one of the young people we work with have incredible stories worth sharing–stories of resilience, strength, and perseverance. While we wish we could share them all, today we are proud to spotlight two stories that are sure to inspire.
Meschack, SWB Uganda
On any given game day, you’ll find Meschack with his head held up high, confidently doing whatever it takes to protect his team’s goal as a central defender. Leadership, communication, bravery, and resilience are key traits of any defender and Meschack has not only shown he has what it takes on the pitch, but he has epitomized these attributes off the pitch as well.
Now living in Kampala, Uganda, Meschack was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country fraught with so much insecurity, war, and conflict that his family was forced to flee in search of safety, security, and peace.
“We suffered a lot on our journey getting here,” recalled Meschack’s mother. The family walked for over 45 miles in search of safety in a nearby town, only to find out that the situation in that area was not much better. “Where we moved to, things turned out to be the same, rebel groups attacked almost every week there where we had sought refuge”. This is when the family decided that, in order to find the security they deserved, they had to continue their journey to Uganda.
The second leg of their journey wasn’t much easier. Meschack’s mother explained: “We decided to move [to Uganda] and unfortunately, we separated, I lost contact with my other family members.”
It was only after eight long years that the family was finally reunited in Kampala. And while adjusting to a new place, culture, and language is never easy, to a young person like Meschack, who experienced a lifetime of trauma at such a young age, the challenge must have seemed insurmountable. “After meeting again,” his mother remembers, “I found Meschack so behind with education. He was struggling with associating, he was so shy that he actually could not speak over sentences.”
Meschack remembered these challenging days very well, but he also remembered the day that everything changed:
“My mother learned about this place called SWB,” Meschack explained, “She came home one evening and told me I would love football. I was home every day and it had been months. So she decided to bring me here so I could learn some English and play football.”
On the first day, I was anxious but I came to know people. I was scared of new people. I was scared of playing football. I never knew how to play football, even while on the pitch I was shivering. It was hard because I knew nothing about football.
Right now, I am extremely happy to be a member of SWB. Other people I know are looking for this opportunity, but for me, I have got it now. It has really helped me and I am glad about it. As a refugee, this also helps me know that I am part of something in the community. I get to learn English so that I can communicate with people surrounding me. I [get to] play football and increase my skills and also [get to make] new friends because in football, we get to know many people.”
Nimrod, SWB Oakland
Excitement and unease. Anticipation and anxiety. One can only imagine the mix of feelings that one must feel while flying halfway around the world to begin a brand new life in a faraway place.
In 2019, this became a reality for Nimrod and his brothers as they flew from Asmara, Eritrea to Oakland, California. Having finally received refugee status, they were able to reunite with their father and pursue an education and a better life in the United States.
Nimrod still remembers his homeland fondly. He remembers the unparalleled sense of community, where it was rare to be treated like a stranger and common to be treated like family. He remembers the simple life of childhood, wandering nearby forests and playing hide and seek with friends. But most of all, he remembers that which never failed to bring him joy…soccer!
But after first arriving in America, these joyful memories must have felt like a million miles away. The early days of Nimrod’s new life were full of isolation and fear. He was scared of starting over, scared of being unable to make new friends, and scared of the daunting task of learning a new language. He was scared that he would not be able to do the thing he loved most, that he would never be able to play soccer again.
It wasn’t long before Nimrod found SWB through his school. Not only was he able to play the sport that he loved, but as it turned out, this was the very thing that helped him overcome the challenges that once seemed impossible to conquer.
It is through soccer that he found a sense of community. Nimrod recalls participating in an SWB opening circle: “After going to a few practices, Coach Keith challenged everyone in the circle to see if they could name everyone in the circle, and people remembered my name, which made me feel like I belonged there. That moment made me feel like I was cared for.”
It was also through soccer that Nimrod found a way to comfortably and safely practice his English. Communication is a key part of any soccer team and this forced him to communicate with his teammates with consistency and confidence. But things did not end there. “I made many new friends there [at SWB],” Nimrod explained, “and I took Spanish class last semester to learn how to communicate with my friends on the team.”
“[SWB] feels like a second home, a place where I can relieve my stress from school,” Nimrod continued. And his favorite things about participating at SWB? “First is soccer. Just playing soccer makes me very happy. Second are my friends on the team. They are like a second family to me.”