Activists get the ball rolling for refugees by teaching them the international language: soccer


AURORA, Colo. — In a community where people from around the globe come together, local educators and activists are leveraging the planet’s universal language to bring immigrants into the fold: soccer.

Aurora schools and local programs created to help immigrants from everywhere find their way in the United States say the “world’s game” makes a natural link from far away places, such as Afghanistan, to the Aurora metroplex.

More than a game, some immigrant assistance volunteers are using soccer as a touchstone to help immigrant and refugee kids find a sense of belonging.

Soccer “provides a sense of familiarity and a connection to home that a lot of newcomers don’t find in many other places in their new communities,” said Casey Thomas, the Colorado director of Soccer Without Borders.

Soccer Without Borders operates in four U.S. states as well as Nicaragua and Uganda. It has had a presence in Greeley since 2012, and in fall 2019 launched a program in partnership with Aurora Public Schools.

Despite operating for only six months before the pandemic began, the program has been immensely popular in Aurora and has continued to grow, organizers say. As the city has received an influx of evacuees from Afghanistan since this past fall, program and district employees hope they can help new arrivals find a sense of connection.

In Greeley, the group worked mainly with refugee youth, Thomas said. Since Northern Colorado has fewer resources for immigrants than the metro area, particularly ones that are free, the program filled an important gap in the region. But because metro Denver is the largest refugee resettlement area in the state, the group wanted to open up a branch there as well.

Thomas and the rest of her staff started a months-long search for the right location, speaking to community leaders and people who worked locally with immigrants and refugees. The nonprofit’s main goals were to make sure that they were filling a need and not duplicating any existing services.

They were drawn to Aurora Public Schools in part due to a community needs assessment from Children’s Hospital Colorado, which helped fund SWB’s launch in the metro. The group found that there was a gap in the availability of physical activity programs for students, particularly at the middle school level.

Soccer Without Borders ultimately chose to partner with APS’ ACTION Zone, a group of five northwest Aurora schools that have a strong focus on community engagement.

The majority of refugee students at APS attend ACTION Zone schools, Thomas said.

Kate Garvin, director of family advocacy and community engagement at APS, said that the district had heard about SWB’s work in Greeley and thought that the organization was a natural partner to the ACTION Zone’s work.

The nonprofit initially started working with middle school students at Aurora West K-8, and then expanded in 2021 to working with high school girls at Aurora Central High School. In the summer months it also provides programming to elementary students.

“It’s a place where they can go and be understood and seen,” Garvin said of Soccer Without Borders.

Staff work with kids on and off the field

The ACTION Zone works with almost 100 community partners, including 25 that provide specific services to refugees, who at times have made up as much as 20% of a school’s student body, Garvin said. What makes Soccer Without Borders unique is that they have trained staff who work inside the school with new students, not just on the field.

SWB staff go through intensive training on working with refugee populations, Thomas said, and partner closely with APS counselors, English language teachers and other support staff to provide tutoring and identify students who could benefit from the program. Even so, she said that the strongest promoters of the program are the kids themselves.

“The word of month among kids is really our strongest pathway for referral,” Thomas said.

Along with helping students develop confidence and feel connected to their school community, a main focus of Soccer Without Borders is helping students learn English. For immigrant students, particularly those in middle and high school, becoming proficient in English is crucial for being able to keep up academically.

“One of our rules at Soccer Without Borders is we practice English because it’s the only language we all have in common,” Thomas said. “We really try and leverage the safe space and sense of community to advance English language development.”

It appears to be working. According to a 2017 reporting project from NPR, only 67% of English language learners graduated from high school, compared to the national average graduation rate of 82%. For Soccer Without Borders program participants, the graduation rate is 95%, Thomas said.

The nonprofit also tries to help students financially by recruiting them to work as coaches in the summer program it conducts for elementary school students and by giving them opportunities to work part time for the organization while in college. It does not currently have any full-time staff who are program graduates, but Thomas said that hiring staff who are from refugee backgrounds themselves is a top priority.

The program had to scale back once the pandemic arrived, and it spent much of the previous school year having coaches meet with kids over Zoom to provide tutoring and emotional support, and outside in small groups. This school year they still have limits on the number of students allowed to participate at a time but are back to practicing full-time.

The skills the program provides, particularly social-emotional development and in-person interaction with peers, appear more needed than ever.

“It’s really clear the kids had a really hard time through the 18 months of mostly virtual schooling,” Thomas said. That is why the organization prioritized coming back in person.

“There’s nothing that can compare to in-person connection and social support,” she said.

Mia Golin, an Aurora coach mentor with SWB, heard about the program from a friend after a stint in the Peace Corps. She had been playing soccer all her life, and thought it sounded like the perfect opportunity to combine her passion for working with kids with her love of sports.

“You don’t have to be able to speak the same language as someone to play soccer with them,” Golin said, which makes it a great focal point for kids from many cultures.

She started working with the organization in 2020, which she said was challenging due to the pandemic but gave her the opportunity to form deeper connections with individual students and their families.

Helping students readjust to in-person learning this school year was difficult at first, but after several months back they started to settle in, she said. It’s rewarding working with the students, many of whom can’t afford the fees to participate in traditional extracurriculars, and watching them become more confident and outgoing over time.

“We get responses from teachers, a lot of, ‘Oh, we’re seeing these incredible changes,’” Golin said, and that once-reticent students start talking about how excited they are to go to class.

Unbeknownst to Soccer Without Borders at the time, the in-person return was just in advance of a new wave of refugee students coming to the Aurora area, as thousands of people were evacuated from Afghanistan last fall after the Taliban takeover.

The Afghan students who have arrived so far have met with a warm welcome from SWB program staff and other student athletes. Golin remembered one of the earliest arrivals from Afghanistan, a middle school boy.

He spoke very little English but was a good soccer player and other students “immediately roped him in,” she said. “Now we see the kids giving him high fives in the hallway and asking him to be on their teams.”

The program is helping him to pick up English quickly and “giving him that space for him to have fun, too,” she said.

As the immigrant population grows, so does the need

About 2,000 Afghan refugees have been resettled in Colorado since last fall, about 90% of whom are living in the Denver metro area, according to state officials.

“While most all of the evacuees have arrived in Colorado, not all of them are settled in permanent housing yet and the process is still ongoing,” Colorado Department of Human Services spokesperson Jordan Johnson said in an email. “As such, we don’t have an exact number of evacuees who have settled in the Aurora area, but Aurora has been, and continues to be, a welcoming place for Afghans.”

The total number of refugees allowed to be resettled in the U.S. each year dropped to historic lows during the Trump administration, with a cap of only 15,000 in 2020. (The Biden Administration raised the cap to 125,000 in October for the next fiscal year, though immigration advocates have said that the dismantling of infrastructure in the federal government during the previous administration will make it impossible to process that many people.)

After such low numbers for so many years, local refugee resettlement workers say the influx of people from Afghanistan has been stressful but exciting.

“We had such a low number over the past couple of years, so it’s really exciting to see new families and the welcome that other students are providing,” said Thomas.

“It’s definitely been a challenge with the sheer numbers of evacuees that arrived in such a short amount of time,” said Maria Farrier, who works as a development manager at the African Community Center, one of the three agencies that resettles refugees in Colorado.

Within a two-month period last fall, Farrier said that the ACC had resettled more people than it had in the past two fiscal years combined. Since October, it has worked with a total of almost 450 individual evacuees. About 110 Afghan evacuees have resettled in Aurora, but she expects that number to increase slightly as more people make their way into permanent housing.

The ACC had to make a lot of internal adjustments to be able to process so many people, Farrier said, but it also received a huge influx of support from the community. The center made over 50 matches to its “first friends” program, which pairs a local family with a newly arrived refugee individual or family. For a minimum of six months, the families meet at least once a week to help the newcomers improve their English skills and get settled in the community.

The ACC also started a community co-sponsorship program at the end of 2021. The program allows larger organizations, such as faith communities, businesses or clubs, to sponsor a family. The organization is responsible for raising $3,000 for the family, helping them furnish their new home and connecting with them for at least nine months after they arrive.

“The fact that we’ve had those programs in place has really made it so we’ve been able to resettle this crazy number of people,” Farrier said.

For young people who arrive in Colorado with their families, enrolling in school and getting acclimated is the most important step in helping them be successful. Hanane Ghiwane works as a school liaison at the ACC, where she helps newly arrived families register their children in school districts across the metro area.

Ghiwane makes sure that families have school supplies and helps coordinate between families and districts if they need help filling out paperwork or getting their children connected to services. Due in large part to the recent arrivals from Afghanistan, she currently has a caseload of 147 new students.

Hanane Ghiwane, the school liason at the African Community Center, poses for a portrait, March 22, at the ACC offices in Denver. Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Some of the districts are easier for her to work with than others, she said. She commended APS and DPS specifically for being proactive in helping newly arrived students feel welcome and being willing to work with her. The significant diversity in both districts is a boon.

At APS, “when I take a kid from Afghanistan they will have two or three kids from Afghanistan in the same grade and they will introduce them, so they feel like they aren’t alone,” she said.

Some other districts are harder because they’re unwilling to talk to anyone except a child’s parents, even when they don’t speak any English.

“They make it so hard for me to advocate for the kids,” she said.

Getting adjusted to life in a new country, and a new school, is generally easiest for the youngest children and becomes more difficult for adolescents.

“The older they get, it gets harder for me,” Ghiwane said.

Teenagers who have to go straight into high school without knowing any English are at a particular disadvantage, she said, and she tries to work with schools to make sure they get the support they need to stay on track to graduate.

She also works to bridge cultural differences. Families from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries are always eager to make sure their children aren’t served pork at school. Many families come from countries where there is little knowledge about conditions such as ADHD.

It’s about finding a house in addition to making a home

Across the metro area, housing is another challenge. She can’t enroll students in school until they’re in permanent housing. Sometimes families are placed in temporary housing when they first arrive, so she has to wait.

The city itself is also trying to make newly arrived refugees’ transitions smoother.

Community outreach coordinator Minsoo Song said the city is working with Arapahoe Libraries to coordinate a “welcome” event for recent immigrants from Afghanistan and is compiling a list of available housing to provide to refugee families.

Kevin Vargas, chair of Aurora’s Immigrant and Refugee Commission, said commissioners are reaching out to recent refugees through nonprofits — providing meals through organizations like the Village Exchange Center — and schools — offering English classes at Aurora Community College and legal help through the University of Colorado.

“We’re just trying to be a support system for them, really,” he said and described the central role that immigrants and refugees play in a community as diverse as Aurora, especially as small business owners and entrepreneurs. “Having these Afghans come into this new society and this new place, it’s important for us to invest in them so later on we can also benefit from them.”

Ricardo Gambetta-Alvarado of Aurora’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs said the local influx of migrants from Afghanistan began around the time of the Taliban takeover.

In late 2021, the office was invited to participate in a state task force for Afghan refugee resettlement and started producing guides to local resources printed in Dari and Pashto — the two official languages of Afghanistan.

The guides address everything from business licensing, to law enforcement, to libraries and includes information about nonprofits offering health care, English classes and other services.

While the office doesn’t know how many families the Pashto and Dari guides had reached, Ricardo Gambetta-Alvarado said aid organizations and the state told them they were used widely among Afghans who decided to settle in Aurora.

“Everything we’re doing is with the goal that everyone will be integrated into the economic, social and political life of the city,” Gambetta-Alvarado said. “This new wave of refugees, they’re going to make big contributions to our city.”

Sentinel Staff Writer Max Levy contributed to this report.

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