If you ask Souvenir Alagnama about the most challenging aspect of playing soccer in America, the 14-year-old Cameroonian refugee won’t think twice before answering.
“Back home, we played in the sand,” he explained. “I really wasn’t used to playing in the grass.”
Like many young children growing up in developing nations, Alagnama found refuge not in state-sponsored relief tents, but in the game of soccer. And as soon as he had settled in the Valley of the Sun in 2007, he started playing again.
Alagnama now plays for the 14-and-under Team Milan, part of the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club. It’s a pretty standard club soccer team, except for the fact that all but one player is a refugee.
With players from Thailand, Burma, Cameroon, Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq, Team Milan now has a reputation for being the “refugee team.” But it wasn’t always that way.
“We didn’t have any refugees until about seven years ago,” said Myles Grunewald, the president of NPCSC.
In 2007, Grunewald was picking his grandson up from a church in Phoenix, where his grandson had befriended a group of refugee children. Behind the church, Grunewald saw them playing a pick-up game of soccer.
“They had touch on the soccer ball,” Grunewald said. “You could tell they had definitely played soccer before, maybe in the refugee camps.”
Grunewald later visited the families’ apartments, and it wasn’t long before he convinced them to let their children join his soccer club. Of the 200 kids who played with the club last year, 130 were refugees. Now, Grunewald said, all but one player on Team Milan is a refugee.
Coach Miguel Vázquez, 31, said the inclusive nature of Team Milan is something that sets it apart from other clubs in the area.
“Everyone’s welcome to the club,” he said.
“We don’t say no to anybody at all, even if they have no skills.”
Miguel’s wife, Alondra, manages Team Milan and said the team is more like a family than just a sports team.
“I feel like everyone’s mom,” she said. “I couldn’t even tell you what all I do, because I try to do everything for them.”
Vázquez, 40, got involved with Team Milan while attending the same church as Grunewald. She began driving the children to and from soccer practices and games,brought water and supplied the team with snacks. Because so many of the children’s families were working long hours during the days, Team Milan didn’t have the same level of parental support as other soccer teams in their league.
“We pretty much had to do everything for them,” she said. “So I made sure they have shoes, uniforms, water … Whatever I needed to do, I would do it.”
But unlike the traditional “Team Mom,” Vázquez’s support for Team Milan doesn’t stop once a game is over. In addition to her regular team manager duties, Vázquez provides intensive tutoring for any player who needs help with their schoolwork.
She tutors up to 15 children at a time, working with their parents and siblings to help ensure that they get the educational support they need. She convinced one family to move next door, so she could work with the children every single day for an entire year. She succeeded in having some of her players transferred to a different school district with better educational opportunity, and she drives a vanful of those players to school every single morning.
Additionally, she and her husband began requiring that all players finish their homework before they can play soccer.
“I didn’t graduate high school, so to me, education is really important,” Vázquez said. “I didn’t want them to go through what I struggled through.”
Vázquez and her husband are familiar with the plight of the refugee. Along with trying to keep up with normal troubles like paying bills and rent on time, they both moved to America from Mexico at a very young age and struggled to fit in as kids.
“At first, I thought my life was difficult,” Vázquez said. “But then I met these kids, and I realized my problems are nothing. My story, my life, my struggles as a child, coming to America … My life just doesn’t compare to theirs.”
She started tearing up as she recounted the stories the children had told her of their former lives. Some of them had to flee their country while guns were firing at them. One slept in the middle of the forest for days. Most, she said, didn’t have enough food to feed their families, and almost all of them had spent time in less-than-adequate refugee camps.
“You know,” she said while wiping the tears away from her eyes, “For a long time, there wasn’t much hope for these kids.”
For as long as the players are a part of the NPSCS, however, their challenges are reduced to just one glaring problem: shoes.
“I remember taking one of our players to practice and asking how he enjoyed it, and he looked at me and said, ‘Coach, this is the first time I’ve ever played with shoes,’” Grunewald said. “Shoes are a big thing here, because a lot have never had them before.”
Although Team Milan receives shoe donations from other soccer clubs and high schools around the valley, there seems to always be a shortage. Grunewald said he keeps about 60 pairs of soccer cleats in his backyard, so players can trade out pairs they’ve outgrown and search for some that fit better.
Along with shoes, the team sometimes lacks sufficient equipment, and it has to fundraise to pay club registration fees for all their players. But, Vázquez said, things are getting better. The team recently received a donation directly from the U.S. soccer team. They received brand-new uniforms and a bunch of new team gear — everything except shoes.
As any player on Team Milan can attest, the diversity and backstories of the team are never a challenge. If anything, said 14-year-old Ghanaian refugee Jeremiah Andrews, it’s a blessing.
“It’s all mixed race, so I get to learn about my friends’ races, and they get to learn about mine,” he said.
Any barriers — cultural, lingual, or otherwise — that may arise in everyday life are brought down as soon as the players congregate on the soccer field.
“Soccer is soccer,” Vázquez said. “We’re a team. We’re one. That’s all.”
The differences between the player’s cultural histories are more fun than challenging, said Alondra’s 19-year-old son Irvyn Ruiz, who coaches the soccer club’s 8-and-under team.
As the children learn more about different cultures, they become more open. Plus, their prolonged exposure to American society helps quicken the assimilation process.
“A lot of them wouldn’t be able to get this experience, this exposure, anywhere else because of the language, the culture, and other barriers,” Ruiz said. “We get to give them that.”
Through education, teamwork, encouragement, and unweilding support, NPCSC has arguably given hundreds of refugee children a fresh start. With open arms, it’s accepted anyone who wants to be a part of the team and helps them and their families with just about anything. To the players, NPCSC is now an intrinsic part of their lives.
And yet, Grunewald, Ruiz, and the Vázquezes said it’s the refugees who are helping them.
“If you told me 10 years ago that I would be helping out a bunch of kids with things that I never had help with — that I was going to help them to not go through the same pain or frustration that I went through as a little girl — I would’ve been like, ‘Yeah right!’” Vázquez said as she held back tears and smiled. “But I know God leads you to the right things and puts you in the right places. And here we are.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org