Photos by Matthew C. Brown

It was early on a recent Saturday morning, and Michael Amend had been on the road for hours, picking up players in a church bus in Greensboro and High Point. He hoped the other volunteer drivers weren’t having trouble finding players’ homes, but he didn’t want to talk on the phone while driving.

The morning’s route and the games that followed comprised a handful of the 25 hours a week Amend spends organizing and coaching soccer teams for students and alumni of the Doris Henderson Newcomers School in Greensboro. And this year his new team of 11- and 12-year-olds has meant an additional workload.

Elsewhere in Greensboro, Moussa Issifou received texts and emails — inquiries for that evening’s game held at a field near Falkener Elementary. Issifou came to Greensboro from Togo in September 2000. Now he’s a professor at NC A&T University, but in the 17 years since his arrival, he has also worked to bring the international community together through soccer — all while enduring unfamiliar restrictions, costs and predispositions.

Narayan Khadka spent the same morning using art to teach English and US citizenship at Greensboro’s Glen Haven Community Center — a welcoming space for support and education located among the apartments of dozens of refugee and immigrant families near North Elm Street and Pisgah Church Road. Khadka arrived in Greensboro from Nepal, and in the years since has pursued an education that would help him unite people and resolve differences. He was waiting to hear about a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro to revitalize the city’s international soccer league; he was the president during its only season back in 2012. There had been many inquiries by those who want it back — people who said they needed it.

These three organizers of immigrant and refugee soccer matches in Greensboro strive to maintain traditions, to do their part for something that endures so strongly in themselves and those they care for, but that the world around them endangers.

They want to provide something hard to define, but for many of the participants, it’s something akin to feeling wholly alive. Their players seek respite, connection, tradition, home. They find it in soccer.

These are the local stewards of the beautiful game.

As the sun went down on April 4, it cast an amber light on the Bennett College soccer field that borders Gate City Boulevard. Almost 20 players had arrived, but the field was empty. Puddles of that morning’s rain kept them off.

Instead, the young men in their late teens kicked soccer balls around on a basketball court next to the soggy field. The hoops and backboards have been removed, leaving only the metal posts — monuments to past play.

Most of the players wore no shoes, not wanting to ruin cleats on the court’s hard surface. Playing barefoot was nothing new; it’s how many of them learned the game in their home countries from a young age, sometimes playing for five or six hours a day. Without cleats on, they still showed incredible finesse.

Coach Michael Amend watched the players, who make up the Greensboro United Soccer Association’s Global team. They are alumni of the Newcomers School, a magnet for first-year immigrants and refugees. Students remain at the Newcomers School for one year, then transition to various schools in the district.

As the players scrimmaged in two separate games in teams of three or four, Anas Quashie limped off the court, the sole of his foot bleeding onto the asphalt. He found one of his socks and wrapped it tightly around the wound.

After the practice, as players waited for city buses or rides home from Amend and one another, Quashie’s peers chided him.

“You must not be from Africa, bro!” one kidded in good nature, showing the group the callous bottom of his right foot.

Quashie is from Africa. He used to play what he calls “street soccer” in the dirt roads of Togo. His feet have softened, adapted since he moved to Greensboro in February 2016.

Of the many challenges that a young refugee faces in the United States, the ones related to changes in soccer are often no less significant than ones off the field. Playing soccer sustains many of these young men: The game transcends to become symbolic — a connection to a new home and the reminder of an old one.

Quashie said the hardest adjustment in his soccer life has been the difference between the dirt streets of Togo and the large grass fields in Greensboro. The game itself has changed.

Soccer encompasses the cultural differences that all of the young men face. They’ve come from other traditions in Egypt, Congo, El Salvador, Liberia, Iraq and various other countries around the world.

Quashie’s teammate Makryous Kori misses the sand pitches in Sudan, where he grew up. He misses using rocks to mark the goals, and he misses his friends who he occasionally talks with on the phone, who ask him when he’s coming home.

But there are greater differences than a change in the playing surface, and a new prerequisite toward practices and matches might be the most challenging.

“You have to call people in the US to [arrange a time] to play,” Kori explained. In Sudan, he said, everyone played in the streets all day long. Pickup soccer was as much a part of life as anything else.

As refugees acclimate to life in Greensboro, to fresh traditions at the Newcomers School and beyond, changes are inevitable.

The weekly pickup game began before Moussa Issifou arrived, but he was by no means lost or out of luck. His group formed these sides often, and he knew the rule: If you’re married, you’re on one team; if not, you’re on the other.

The division might not have been followed precisely, and the teams were already unbalanced — 11 bachelors against 13 espoused, with Issifou joining the latter. But for Issifou, accuracy carried less importance than a greater goal. He didn’t call them married and unmarried. He called them fathers and sons.

“We do this sometimes,” Issifou explained as he waited to sub in during an April 16 game. “It’s a way to play our sons. They get excited and want to score.”

Understandably, the sons want to beat their fathers — the adults or elders. But just as importantly for Issifou, they simply want to play.

Soccer is a tradition — a fact lost to those who don’t include sports in the ranks of language, food, music and dance. Yet like any part of culture, a community’s athletic and sports traditions can falter as the youngest generations of families new to the United States adjust.

That jeopardy isn’t lost to Issifou: “Our kids that are born here, some of them are still following soccer, but some others are going to basketball, baseball and football…. So right now we’re playing with our old kids on the same field and team. Some of them have grown up to catch up with us. We want to maintain them; when you go and watch you will not know who is the dad, who is the son.”

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After the separate sides warmed up — the fathers as a synchronized regiment and the sons in a loose circle of chatter — the sons removed their shirts and the game began.

Players on the field usually range from around 15 to 50. In special circumstances, the fathers allow the even younger kids to join.

“If we don’t have enough players, [the younger kids] want to play,” Issifou explained. “We put them [in] there and we know how to play with them and train them.”

This wasn’t the case on April 16. As the big game got underway, some of the youngest kids started a miniature match in an unused corner of the field, while others tore around the parking lot on bikes with training wheels or partook in a large box of Bojangles fast food.

Sometimes when Issifou plays, memories of his own younger days appear.

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“You look back and you are not completely detached from your time growing up,” he said. “Sometimes you want to make some moves like you used to do…. It keeps you still connected.”

Issifou, now 48, admitted that these moves are not quite as common as they used to be.

“Sometimes you just watch the ball pass and you cannot do anything,” he laughed. “But we’re still trying to maintain. I can no longer do like I used to do. Still, I’m happy that I can go there and run with the kids and play.”

Partway through the game, due to a handball near the goal, Moussa was awarded a penalty kick on the unguarded small net from half field, a challenging distance of 30 or 40 yards. To the sons’ delight, he missed horribly to the left.

Even as the game embodied tradition, one difference divided the generations.

The sons spoke English on the field; they complained to the ref — a man who usually plays on the fathers’ side — in English; they advised and encouraged each other in English. As often as not, their English carried no Togolese, Congolese or Somali accent.

“Hey, stop arguing!” a son called from his goal toward the scrum of players upfield. “Y’all messing up the chemistry!”

But the fathers rarely spoke English — not to the ref, to each other, or in frustrated or joyous exclamations.

Despite the difference, Issifou said that he and the other fathers try to use the games as a chance to maintain languages as well as the sport itself.

After an hour of continuous, contentious play, the contest ended 0 to 0. A scoreless final is common, Issifou said, due to the intensity brought forth when the fathers and sons square off.

Even when Issifou’s pickup games don’t set fathers against sons, traditions can still play an important role.

“Teams here are naturally — or somehow — organized based on affinity,” Issifou explained. “You don’t sit anywhere and say, ‘We’re going to create a team or a league.’ But people from the same countries [come together]… If there is an independence of — let’s say, Togo Independence Day — we can say, ‘Okay, we’re going to play a game against Niger or Nigeria or Congo.’ Then the Togolese people will gather, Nigerian people will gather, and then we will play…. But everybody can come and join.

“The majority of the people might be from one region, but other people can play as well,” he continued. “It’s not like a solid team where you have a roster and say everybody should do this, no. But when it comes to games, you could put a region or country as a name and go play…. In the past we’ve had a tournament here for that, with trophies even, but we have not done that for five years.”

At least once, the Togo team won the tournament on its independence day.

Regardless of marital or national affiliation, camaraderie comes easy through shared time on the soccer pitch.

“[It] makes people click very, very, very fast,” Issifou said. “You play with some people one time, that’s it. Wherever you see each other, you know: This person plays this game.”

For years, assimilation wasn’t the only barrier to Issifou’s international soccer community — access to fields held them back.

“Initially, we were managing to go where we found a field,” Issifou said. “We just organized and played. It has been more and more difficult throughout the years because the field organizers restrict you.”

Finally, Issifou’s group benefited from the collective effort.

“This is where I’m going to salute the city of Greensboro,” Issifou proclaimed. “We approached them as an international community, and we were able to get them to grant us permission to play on some fields that are owned and maintained by the city. I would say that it is a very good investment they have made…. The city of Greensboro has done this and we appreciate that very much. Now we don’t have any worry; we know where the fields are…. For the whole summer we have a place to go play.”

This will be the second summer Issifou’s group has access to those fields.

Counting on further city cooperation, Issifou hopes for a tournament that could bring people together across nationalities.

“This is what sport does: It brings people from many backgrounds together and builds some kind of camaraderie that would never be built if there was no sport,” he said. “[The city] could step in and think about organizing some tournaments and leagues for soccer whereby different age groups could play.”

It wouldn’t be the first attempt at an international soccer league.

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In 2011, immigrants and refugees in Greensboro started to discuss a soccer league following the success of the United Dashain Festival, which brought together Bhutanese and Nepalese people living in the Triad and included a match between local Bhutanese and Nepalese soccer teams.

With the help of the FaithAction International House, the Triad International Soccer League organized several international tournaments with teams and players representing many African and Asian ethnicities. The following year, the Greensboro Parks & Rec Department agreed to sponsor the league, renamed the Greensboro International Soccer League of the Triad.

Narayan Khadka, who served as the league’s president, strongly believes in the convivial power of the sport.

“I’m interested in a soccer league because I’m an anthropologist, sociologist, a conflict resolution student,” Khadka explained. “So my interest is how we use sports to bring people together or resolve their differences.”

Growing up, Khadka played some soccer in his home country of Nepal, though it was often hard to come by.

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“At that time, there was no ball available — you couldn’t afford to buy a ball,” he explained. “You made your own ball with some cloths; in childhood we would play with that.”

Khadka recognizes the endurance of soccer through struggle. He understands its value for those who have been displaced — its ability to become a diversion from a demolished previous life.

“[Soccer] is entertainment, and also it’s a kind of tool for healing,” he said. “They used to play in Bhutan, and when they came to refugee camps, they organized themselves there and tried to find a field and play. So when they came [to Greensboro], they wanted to do the same. They try to forget what happened in the past. Problems, trauma, psychological trauma — they want to forget that, and [soccer] helps. Soccer is a means of healing.”

Obviously, this function of the beautiful game isn’t limited to refugees from Bhutan or Nepal.

“You see that also from refugees from Africa,” Khadka said. “Soccer builds a community. When we had our tournament, a lot of people were coming. Not only players — the families were coming and the community was also coming…. Sports have that power. But for the refugees and immigrants I think soccer is very popular; and soccer has something to make them changed, inspired.”

Many in the city’s international communities see the same value in soccer, including Issifou, a member of the Greensboro International Soccer League’s technical committee.

“It keeps you looking forward to another game, and that is a pleasure to have,” Issifou explained when discussing his regular weekend competition at the Falkener Elementary field. “Because at least you are not only just working; you have two days to go there and relax and laugh, especially.

“You’re not living a life where stress has taken over to the point where you don’t feel like staying here,” he continued. “Personally, I think it has helped in terms of erasing any stress that may be there…. Even if I have a headache, if I go play soccer, that is over.”

But despite the importance and community support, the league didn’t last.

“We did the league one year, but the next year what happened is that parks & rec wanted to charge $500, and our teams could not come up with it,” Khadka said. “So there was no grant, nothing, and we could not do it the next year.”

The participation fee the city demanded was high enough that many people couldn’t afford their part up front, or didn’t want to return and pay the following season, Khadka explained.

Amanda Lehmert, a communications specialist for the city of Greensboro, confirmed that only one team paid the full $500, despite a drop in price from $700 the preceding season.

“In lieu of an organized league, we have designated times for Hester Park pickup games, where everyone can go play,” Lehmert said.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the city has reserved Hester Park for soccer from 6 p.m. to dark, Lehmert explained.

But now with a grant application sent off to the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, Khadka is hoping to get another tournament going in Hester Park by Memorial Day weekend this year.

On April 13, the Greensboro United Soccer Association’s Global team practiced at Smith High School, while the students were gone for spring break.

After warming up, the players stood around the circle at center field. Coach Amend had them call out a teammate’s name as they passed him a ball. Soon three balls were going simultaneously, and a continuous string of players’ names sounded out across the field.

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There are many different first languages among the 17 players at the Global team’s practice — Arabic, French, Spanish, Haitian Creole and others. But the players know each others’ names, and everybody speaks soccer.

“You only need to know, ‘Yes, yes,yes!’ and ‘Go!’,” Mohab Eid, a 17 year-old from Egypt, said smiling. He’s one of several players on the Global team who speak Arabic, and even they have different dialects.

The players remained around the circle, but Amend chose two to try to intercept the passes — now with only one ball going. The 15 players around the circle had five attempts to complete 10 consecutive passes without the two opponents gaining possession.

They didn’t make it, so Amend ordered 25 pushups each.

The teammates howled and groaned and threw themselves on the ground in comical protest and defeat. But it seemed they loved it all.

The callousness of displacement does not soften like the sole of a foot. There are challenges in the lives of refugees and immigrants — both in public and private — unimaginable to those who have never been forced from their homes.

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A few days before the Global team’s practice, Amend’s new team of 11- and 12-year-olds played a game in the Spears YMCA soccer league on April 8. Some of the kids became nervous when a couple of airplanes passed overhead. They looked darkly toward the sky, and their shoulders rose with trepidation. But they would laugh and tease and put an arm around each other after the shadows and sound of the engines were gone — a camaraderie beyond words, an empathy curative and essential.

Sport brings — at its most extraordinary and consequential — a togetherness, a bivouac against the horror of a previous life.

“We are one family,” Eid summed up, still smiling, during the Global team practice. “I love this family.”

In Greensboro, as it does around the world, sport becomes symbolic of kinship. The separate and diverse trials of the players’ pasts meet on a field here, and the players take part in something more than a game, something perhaps even more beautiful than the game itself. Soccer becomes a recognition of fellowship, an act of solidarity, a ballot, an invitation to be included.

They take the field together to maintain a tradition and a memory of a bigger world — to simultaneously conceive of a life within and beyond the walls of the United States.

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