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Refugee kids in Orange County find a safe haven in soccer

Kids play soccer as part of a free "summer camp" for refugee children in Westminster run by World Relief, a resettlement agency in Garden Grove. Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Every Tuesday morning for the past several weeks, about two dozen girls and boys have gathered on a grassy field at a Westminster middle school to play soccer.

From a distance, it could be any summer soccer program. But draw closer and one hears the kids cheering on one another in languages like Arabic and Dari as they chase and kick the ball.

The vast majority of these kids are refugees. They came from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. Some have been in the U.S. a year or two, others only a few weeks. But all are adjusting to life in a country where President Trump’s temporary ban on refugee travel is in effect and the reception is not uniformly welcoming.

The kids range in age from 7 to 16. Some are skilled players who have been playing for years, others are relative newbies, like 13-year-old Neegina Stanikzai, who arrived from Afghanistan about 10 months ago.

For Neegina, just being on this outside field is a revelation. In Afghanistan where she grew up, she couldn't play soccer out in the open, Neegina said.

“We were playing soccer in the home, not outside, because there are bad people, and they say they will kill you. That is why we were just at home, all the time,” she said.

The weekly, part-time "soccer camp" was put together this summer by World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency with an office in nearby Garden Grove. The staff members said many of the kids they saw while on home visits with resettled families had nothing to do after school ended. Their parents couldn't afford summer programs.

"They struggle just getting groceries," said Anna Gnewuch, a World Relief intern who doubles as soccer coach. "You never know what the next day is going to be like for some of them."

A few months ago, World Relief refugee program manager Jose Serrano started a Saturday art program for kids at an apartment complex where several families live. It was a hit. They called the weekend program "Little Brushstrokes."

Then in early July, the agency expanded its program to soccer every Tuesday morning, coached by Gnewuch. Other staffers pitch in, as do volunteers. It's free for the families.

"There was a need, and that need was to provide these kids with the opportunity to simply be kids," Serrano said. "A lot of the kids came from war-torn countries, where they went to school and the next day, the school wasn't there anymore."

But on the Westminster soccer field, they can be kids. After dividing into two teams, some children play as others wait their turn, cheering and trying out their developing English. 

Eleven-year-old Kevin Mikhail and his little brother Steven cooled off with juice boxes on the sidelines. Unlike most of the others, the brothers were born in Egypt and grew up in Kuwait, and are the children of asylum seekers. But they share a bond with the others.

"We are together as a team," said Kevin, whose family arrived in the U.S. two years ago. "We are here as brothers, as united — as brothers and sisters, you know?"

After the game, Neegina and 11-year-old Sahar Haidari, also from Afghanistan, helped translate for newcomer Zahra Rahimi, 12, who arrived from Afghanistan a month ago.

"In Afghanistan, there is too much fighting, and here there is not," Zahra said. "They want to kill people."

Neegina explained that her new friend was talking about the Taliban, the fundamentalist group that once ruled Afghanistan and continues to wage war there. 

"They are killing girls and boys," Neegina said. "They don't want the girls to go to school. They hate girls, I don't know why."

The girls were also restricted when they played.

"We can’t play soccer in Afghanistan with boys," Neegina said. "We can't talk to them." 

Gnewuch said there's a nickname for the team. "We call it the World Cup, just because of so many different backgrounds."

Gnewuch is realizing that for many of the children, there's more to the soccer program than just getting a chance to play outside, especially for the girls. 

"Being around boys and being able to ... just run around and be athletic and be strong and be tough on the field and defend themselves — they are actually able to defend themselves — that is huge," Gnewuch said.

For all the kids, too, playing soccer is part of the transition to their new lives here.

"They are learning who they are," she said," and who they can be."