- Associated Press - Sunday, April 16, 2017

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - There’s a wide patch of dirt between two apartment buildings in Newport News. At either end, children have drawn large rectangles on the red brick in white chalk: soccer goals. It’s what passes for a pitch for the children here - and it’s still more than many had back home.

Around 95 refugee families live in this apartment complex in Newport News. On Saturday morning, Old Dominion University men’s soccer coach Alan Dawson and his squad set up cones and rolled out balls in the parking lot.

“The world’s game,” Dawson calls it, in a thick Irish brogue.

The clinic came about after Dawson’s wife, Mari, met and started helping out a Sudanese woman and her five children. She told him about the many children who now call Hampton Roads home even as many of them speak little to no English.

“We thought it would be a tremendous opportunity to bring soccer, the world’s game, to help these kids feel connected and assimilate,” Alan Dawson said. “Soccer transcends all languages.”



So they showed up, with tiny soccer balls and miniature ODU jerseys.

“They’re poking their heads out and then coming running out. We’re having everyone go rap on the doors,” he said as a dozen or so college players kicked balls back and forth with twice as many knee-high children in a roped off area in the center of the parking lot.

Refugee families from every corner of the globe are now living in this complex, according to property manager Gracie Johnson.

They’ve come in waves, often fleeing horrors. Fifteen years ago, they were mostly from Sudan, the so-called “Lost Boys,” Johnson said. Then, it was from India, Bhutan, Nepal. Later, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

For some, the change is a major shock and the transition is very hard, especially the language barrier, Mari Dawson said. Soccer is one of those things that many have in common - there’s regularly a half-dozen or more kids kicking a ball around in the parking lots at the complex, residents said, and those chalk outline goals were on the walls long before the ODU players showed up.

Former Old Dominion soccer player Emmanuel Ambane Ambane knows the feeling. When he was recruited from Cameroon in central Africa in 2006, he said he didn’t know any English, but that was OK.

“I was comfortable because the soccer ball doesn’t just speak English,” Ambane said.

Now, Ambane speaks it fluently and works in Norfolk and Virginia Beach doing religious outreach. He was excited to see kids on Saturday, helping as a coach and interpreter to connect the same way he had a decade ago.

Omar Albayati, a 13-year-old from Iraq, speaks little English. Through an interpreter, he said playing with the other kids isn’t so hard, even boys and girls from other cultures.

“If I can’t talk, I can use sign language,” a kind of universal gesturing, Albayati said. He said he also knows a couple of the most important words in English, like “pass.”

The college players, along with some of their counterparts from ODU’s women’s team, led dozens of young children in drills and games Saturday. While they played a soccer version of Simon Says, the complex’s older boys played a pickup game on that dirt patch with the drawn-on goals.

One boy in his teens, with neon shoes and a tall poof of hair, crossed the ball through the air. Navigating traffic in front of the illustrated goal, another boy came streaking in behind the ODU goalkeeper and bounced the ball off his chest to score. He smiled widely as he jogged back to the other side of the field.

For Mari Dawson, any positive interaction is good, especially for the young men who have wound up in America without fathers.

“That’s bonding,” she said, gesturing to the world’s game played in a parking lot.

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com

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