Four months ago, 17-year-old Nassour Yacoub was with his mother and five siblings were in a refugee camp in the Republic of Chad in central Africa, where they spent a dozen years after they fled their homeland of Sudan.
On Saturday, he joined a mix of more than 100 children –- refugees, immigrants and children of foreign-borne parents –- at Delia Park in Sterling Heights to play soccer, but more importantly to foster new friendships, respect and understanding in the community.
“He enjoyed a lot playing with the kids,” an interpreter said on Yacoub’s behalf. “He would like to do this again.”
With assistance from faith-based organizations, the first-ever “Friendship Games” one-day soccer tournament was directed by Welcoming Michigan, a statewide immigrant integration project of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
The event was held in honor of World Refugee Day June 20. Locally, community partners for the tournament included Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, Samaritas, Chaldean Community Foundation, Chaldean American Ladies of Charity, Islamic Organization of North America, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Approximately 60 volunteers from the organizations and local families provided a helping hand on the sunny and warm day to make everyone feel at home.
Language barriers were no problem for kids as young as 5 years old and teenagers to have fun on the soccer field while realizing many have lived vastly different lives. After the children were introduced to each other and some warmup drills were held, they took to the field for a total of eight games.
In addition to Sudan, participating refugees were from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. They were referred to the soccer tournament by area refugee resettlement agencies, and participated Saturday with children and volunteers from several communities including Sterling Heights, Shelby Township, Troy, Bloomfield Hills and Detroit.
Christine Sauve, of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said the idea for the soccer tournament bringing together refugees, immigrants and U.S.-born children was raised several years ago. Idea turned to reality this year, thanks to public and corporate donations including the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; Blue Cross of Michigan; OpTech; the city of Sterling Heights; Carpathia FC soccer club; and the non-profit social services organizations and charities.
Houda Diaconescu, a community volunteer with Welcoming Michigan and native of Algeria, brought her years of experience as a coach in the Warren Youth Soccer League to Delia Park.
“I love it. It’s a pleasure to see the kids out here, happy and getting along,” said Diaconescu, of Sterling Heights.
Her 13-year-old son, Ghilas, agreed.
“Looking out on the field, you can tell everyone was having fun,” he said.
Volunteer coach Chris Doolittle with Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan remarked the children didn’t seem shy and blended in well.
“I’m sure these kids would do this every weekend,” Doolittle said.
After the games ended, all of the young soccer participants received participation medals, placed over their head by Sterling Heights Councilman Doug Skrzyniarz. He asked the players for their name, congratulated each one and posed for occasional pictures by smiling parents. The kids also received a T-shirt and were treated to pizza and snow cones.
“It was great,” said Jordan Jarbo, 11, of Shelby Township, who participated in the tournament with brothers Jaylen and Jason Jr.
“It’s a great idea,” said their mom, Shala Jarbo. “It’s a blessing to have this. I wish they could do it every year.”
That’s a goal organizers hope to make if they can score adequate sponsorships.
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