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.”
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.