“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.
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.
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.