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Amid chaos, young Afghan refugees find something familiar in St. Louis — soccer

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Newly arrived Afghan refugees play soccer at a St. Louis sports facility. For many, it's a chance to do something familiar during a time of profound change.

Dance music boomed as about 35 kids ran around and chased soccer balls flying through the air on a recent Saturday afternoon at STL Futbol Club.

The children all fled Afghanistan with their families in recent months, after Taliban fighters seized control of the country in August.

At the indoor sports complex near Forest Park, older boys played on one field, younger boys on another while the girls were together on a third field. They shouted to each other in Farsi, Pashto and bits of English.

The International Institute organized the 12-week soccer program, which will continue through the end of April.

“A lot of times when we’re trying to work in a crisis, we’re focused on food. We’re focused on shelter,” said Moji Sidiqi, program manager for the Afghan Support Program, a cluster of relief efforts spearheaded by the International Institute and other local aid groups. “But then there’s this aspect of being a child. Being out and about with your peers, and just being children.”

Sidiqi, 31, joined the International Institute about a month ago. She can relate well to these children: Sidiqi too fled Afghanistan as a child, and she lived in Moscow for a few years before landing in St. Louis at age 9.

Most of the young soccer players gathered on this day are still living in hotels while the International Institute works to secure long-term housing for the new arrivals. They all qualified for a special refugee visa because adults in their families worked alongside U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, an act that could expose them to retaliation from the newly ascended Taliban.

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Some of the older Afghan children play soccer at STL Futbol Club on a recent Saturday. The weekly program will extend through the end of April.

After spending a lot of their time in hotels since arriving in town, the children were happy to have something fun to do.

“Soccer is good for health. I like to play with the other guys,” said Zubair, a 15-year-old who has been in St. Louis for two months, following a five-month stay in New Jersey.

He said some of his friends are good cricket players, but they also appreciate the chance to play soccer.

St. Louis civic leaders have pledged to relocate more than 1,000 Afghan refugees. The International Institute has been ramping up its capacity for months, securing a $1.5 million grant from Pershing Charitable Trust to help with resettlement and adding staff. The organization had scaled down during the Trump administration, when the flow of refugees to the region became a trickle.

A refugee command center that includes representatives from Welcome Neighbor STL, Oasis International and the International Institute is overseeing the logistics related to resettlement efforts. The Afghan Support Program, which local groups announced in January, includes plans to create an Afghan chamber of commerce, a community center, computer training and other programs to help Afghans build a lasting community in St. Louis.

“We’ve been told there’s no program like this in the United States for Afghan refugees,” said attorney Jerry Schlichter, co-founder of the nonprofit startup competition Arch Grants. “It’s a very comprehensive program that we’ve developed to have the most welcoming community in America for Afghan refugees.”

Schlichter had the idea for soccer Saturdays after seeing newly arrived Afghans playing soccer on the grass beneath the Gateway Arch last fall.

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Some of the younger boys play in their own game. The weekly get-together is a chance to exercise and make new friends.

“This is their sport,” Schlichter said, “and I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to mix with other Afghan kids and get some exercise.”

On the first week of the soccer program in February, some of the children arrived barefoot or wearing sandals. A private donor stepped up to pay for athletic shoes, which the owner of St. Louis-based sports supplier GKUltra sourced at cost. One week, the children lined up to have their feet sized.

Program organizers are trying to find more sportswear for the participants but have had trouble finding the more modest clothing that the participating Afghan girls prefer.

Volunteers drove the children to and from the sports complex and spent time on one field with the youngest participants, helping them practice basic soccer skills. Toward the end of the day, the younger girls crowded around a table with coloring books, chatting.

“We want them to have a nice, welcoming experience — being with familiar faces, with friendly faces,” said Carlos Suarez, a logistics manager for the refugee command center. “I think that’s a key part of getting them into the St. Louis community.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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