- Associated Press - Saturday, September 3, 2016

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - The soccer team in the green shirts has been practicing at McCaskey High School for a few weeks.

And before the team’s first match, coach Kam Mang has a confession.

“I have to be honest with you. I’ve never played soccer in my life,” he said. “I was a martial artist. I only started playing soccer a month or two ago. I’m not good.”

Mang came to the U.S. as a refugee from Burma, where he was mistaken as a rebel and spent years in prison.

He’s made a new life in Lancaster. Yet Mang cares enough about connecting the growing number of refugees in Lancaster County that he’s learned a new sport.

As his team was about to hit the field Sunday, he said he was excited to see three other teams with local refugees gathered for a soccer tournament. There’s the competition, but soccer was simply a universally popular excuse to get together.

“We have so many refugees coming from other countries. The thing is that we don’t even know each other,” he said. “So I think the main thing is to get to know each other.”

The refugee soccer tournament brought together four teams with refugee athletes from four countries - Somalia, Nepal, Vietnam and two ethnic groups from Burma - who have made their homes in Pennsylvania. Church World Service, a Lancaster nonprofit, ran with the idea as an active meetup that’s also fun to watch.

Omar Mohamed, a case manager with Church World Service, came up with the soccer tournament to bring together refugees relocating to south-central Pennsylvania. Most recent refugees resettling in Lancaster County come from Cuba, Somalia, Congo, Burma and Syria, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Soccer is one thing uniting these cultures, Mohamed said, and providing a chance for the younger newcomers to gather.

“To know each other, to meet, to exchange new ideas, make new friends, support each other,” he said.

Then, see what happens next.

Stephanie Gromek, community resource coordinator with Church World Service, said yes to Mohamed’s idea.

“We’re at a pretty tense time, not only with our political situation but also with resettlement in general,” she said. “Lancaster is incredibly welcoming and very open to refugees, and so we want to try and keep it that way.”

This soccer game was fun, too.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to that we’re all coming together to play a game of soccer that we all very much know and enjoy watching,” she said.

Earlier this month in Rio de Janeiro, the Summer Olympics welcomed their first refugee team. Ten athletes displaced from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Republic of Congo were selected to be symbols of hope and to bring attention to the refugee crisis.

Church World Service received donations for the local soccer match. There were drinks from Weis and Giant. Franklin & Marshall College donated use of the Baker Campus fields. Longenecker’s Hatchery donated money to line the field. Angelo’s Soccer Corner donated soccer balls and whistles. Unitz1 donated team T-shirts. Individual donors covered the cost of the trophies.

Mohamed recruited soccer players. Sunday afternoon, two Somali teams and a Burmese Karen team practiced before the games. Members of one of the Somali teams live in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County. The other two teams have members who live in Lancaster.

A fourth team was delayed, so Church World Service staff and fans stepped in.

Later, Mang’s team of Chin refugees from Burma arrived. They were late because some of the members were working, the coach said. The group wanted to arrive as a team.

Fariha Sarij, of Lititz, came with her husband and children to support the teams even though they didn’t know any of the players. The family heard about the event through the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster.

“When there’s opportunities to help them, we do,” Sarij said.

She came to the U.S. from Afghanistan as a child in 1984. Her husband made his way to America from Afghanistan as an adult. Sarij has known of Afghan refugees who moved to Lancaster but later moved to places with larger Afghan communities.

“That’s another reason that we try to reach out to them, so that they can see folks are welcoming,” she said.

The couple also want their children to get to know refugees.

“We want them to see that there’s so much depth and so much more to these people than what we hear on the news,” Sarij said. “They’re not so different. They like the things we like. They like soccer.”

Both Somali teams made it to the tournament final, which was played in the dark and lit by car headlights.

The two teams tied 2-2 and went into a shootout. The team matched penalty shots until the Lancaster team won on the eighth player.

Organizers want to have another tournament next year and hope to recruit more teams.

“It looks like in the coming years, we will have more teams. That’s exciting,” Mang said.

Why?

“We get to know each other,” he said. “That’s really important. We have been through so many difficulties in our life, coming here with a new life and new challenges.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2bvBvHO

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Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com


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