Less than a week before the kickoff of the biggest soccer spectacle in the world (yes, that one, in South Africa), eighty political refugees held their own modest version of the World Cup tournament this weekend on a sun-soaked field in Oakland.
The two-day event was jointly organized by the local branch of the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based organization that helps resettle political refugees, and Soccer Without Borders, a nonprofit group in Oakland that forms and trains league teams of high school-age refugee boys and girls.
The two groups supplied the players with volunteer referees, free jerseys, balls, a few cones and the turf field at Fremont High School.
The refugees from Eritrea, Iraq, Myanmar and Ethiopia brought the rest: team tactics, some strut and a love for the game, measured in “oohs” every time a player pirouetted gracefully or blasted a fierce shot.
“It was a good way to plug into the World Cup, which I know these guys are wacko about,” said Don Climent, the head of the IRC’s San Francisco offices. None of the countries that the Oakland refugees once called home are represented in South Africa.
Every year, the U.S. Department of State allows up to 70,000 people to claim refugee status in this country. That figure does not include the countless more who make it to the U.S. and then retroactively apply for political asylum.
The organizers said the makeup of the teams reflected the Bay Area’s refugee community. There were three teams from the Karen and Karenni ethnic minorities from Myanmar, and two teams of ethnic Bhutanese who had fled Nepal. Iraqis, Eritreans and Ethiopians were also represented.
But there were two notably absent refugee communities: Afghans and Sri Lankans. The Bay Area's large population of Afghan emigres is found mostly in Fremont, the IRC said, a long drive from the tournament site. As for the Sri Lankans—well, don’t say the IRC didn’t try.
“We went to them thinking they would love this,” said John Hollis of the IRC. “Turns out, they’re all cricketers.”