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“Refugee Soccer” Helps Newcomers Transition to U.S.

Two players position themselves for a play on the ball in a soccer game at River’s Edge Sports Complex over the weekend.
Two players position themselves for a play on the ball in a soccer game at River’s Edge Sports Complex over the weekend.

Area refugees, who speak many different languages, gather together on Saturdays to play soccer in Roanoke parks.  Yes, they are playing a game…but the implications are far reaching. For them, assimilating into America is not easy.  There are always many barriers to overcome:  language, economic and social.  Challenges like that keep many immigrants very busy.

So why join together to play soccer? Because the game is an activity “where they can succeed, in a new life that is full of struggle”, says Mary Beth Pizzino, Volunteer Coordinator for Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS).  “Soccer is something that is familiar, something at which they can excel, and a bridge that they can build with Americans.”

Bhutanese refugees Laxman and Lalita Bhandari have been in Roanoke since February.  Sent to a Nepali refugee camp simply due to their ethnicity, the Bhandaris came to Roanoke to make a better life for themselves.  One stop they made along the way in their journey lasted several years, when they were relocated to India.  They took that opportunity, in addition to their regular full-time jobs, to take up studies in tax accounting and teaching, respectively.

Fresh with certificates in hand and a newfound hope, the Bhandaris arrived in Roanoke, only to find this city and country mired in a deep recession. Jobs in their respective fields were hard to find…any job for that matter.  So, Lalita has had to postpone her teaching aspirations; instead she was grateful to find a job as a housekeeper at a local motel.  For the time being Laxman is serving as a volunteer interpreter for other refugees in the valley and hopes to get a position with Total Action Against Poverty (TAP).

Overall, the Bhandaris’ story is not unique. They all need help up front. According to Director Beth Lutjen, the RIS office settles about 200 refugees per year in Roanoke, “We arrange for a place for them to live, get utilities turned on, get groceries for the first week, access social services benefits for the family, enroll the children in school, see that they have physical care, assist in finding employment and then provide case management during the adjustment period.”

Although successful resettlement for that many people might seem like a daunting task for Lutjen and the RIS office, “most refugees are completely self-sufficient within six to twelve months,” she said. In addition to meeting life’s basic necessities, there are emotional issues to address.  Coming to a new country without knowing anyone, and having difficulty connecting with its inhabitants, can be depressing for them.

Contrary to some perceptions, refugees actually want to be friends with Americans, not just socialize with their own. “I was touched by a group of Burmese refugees that came for the very first soccer game,” said Pizzoni. “They had carefully prepared an assortment of fruit to share with the other players and spectators at the game.  Even though Americans were hosting the event for them, the Burmese wanted to contribute and demonstrate goodwill toward everyone there.”

These Saturday soccer games are serious, competitive affairs, a vehicle for people from different cultures to get together to play a game and just to feel normal. Soccer, the most popular sport in the world (outside the U.S. especially) is a platform where these refugees can speak a common language, and a way to help assimilate into the American “melting pot.”

By Wade Thompson
[email protected]

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  1. satisfyed .precious but one thing has explain about bhandari showing picture about soccer.what he has done in roanoke for them why this news take activities of him.we every body really egar to know whats their name pic mention it is better if u have explained refugee playing soccer

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