On the Soccer Field, a Roster Full of Refugees

Eric Michael Johnson for The New York TimesShafiq Haidari, 28, who arrived from Afghanistan in July, plays on a team that includes numerous refugees and competes in a United Nations soccer league.

In a Wednesday night league held on Roosevelt Island, the sidelines are clearly marked, but the games are very much without borders.

This is especially true for the refugee team that plays in this United Nations soccer league made up of players who work at the U.N.

The refugee team is fielded by the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental international relief organization that works with immigrants fleeing oppression. The refugee team has six players who have come in recent months from countries including Guinea, Mauritania and Sierra Leone.

there was also Tara Gurung, 18, an ethnic Bhutanese man who spent years in a refugee camp in Nepal. Playing on a recent Wednesday night, he roamed the midfield, quick as a jack rabbit, and hungrily chased down the ball.

There was Basim Mghamis, 24, at forward, who fled war-torn Iraq as a teenager and lived in several countries before coming to New York last year. Defending the goal was Shafiq Haidari, 28, who fled the Taliban in Afghanistan and came to the United States in July.

“It’s something we can all play together,” said mr. Haidari, of the soccer competition.

The rest of the team this night — the games are played with seven players on each side — was made up of committee staff members and volunteers. The on-field roster varies week to week, since most of the refugees hold jobs with long hours and unusual shifts.

The team is not exactly eating up the competition – it has lost all of its seven games so far – but the players do work well together, despite many of the refugees’ limited English.

“The common thing here is soccer; they each know how to play and where to go with it,” said Vanessa Pirandello, a communications coordinator for the committee, which is based in Midtown Manhattan. “The team is an attempt to reconnect them to a sport they all love and reconnect them to other people in New York City. this is the United Nations league, and our team is a little United Nations in itself.”

for some players, the league is their first opportunity to play soccer since arriving in the United States and a return to something normal and carefree, Ms. Pirandello said as she walked the sidelines and cheered for the refugee players.

also watching was the league president, Alvaro Calderon.

“The team is an example of one of our goals, bringing people together and creating friendship through sport,” said mr. Calderon, who recently retired as a librarian in the U.N. library. Each year, he said, league officials pick an all-star team for a World Cup, of sorts, of United Nations teams all over the world.

The league runs from September through December. there are 16 teams in the league and they have names like the Balkan Express, U.N. Security, Unicef and Peace United. In its early years, the league played its games on Randall’s Island and had many high-level players, including Rich Chinapoo, a fullback from Trinidad who played for Long Island University in Brooklyn and went on to play for the New York Cosmos in the early 1980s.

Next to the game involving the team with refugees was another match between a Serbian team and a squad of security guards from the United Nations. sometimes diplomatic complexities disrupt a team’s schedule, mr. Calderon said. for example, the security team loses some of its key players when they have to travel to help guard the secretary general.

The games are held on a field of artificial turf next to the East River. on this night, the river was dark and glassy and running swiftly southward toward New York Harbor. Big, black tankers slipped by, in front of the Manhattan skyline, seemingly within kicking distance. at one point, a shot toward the refugee team’s goal went wide and the ball sailed into the river and was swept away by the current.

The International Rescue Committee helps people uprooted or affected by violence and oppression. It provides emergency relief and resettlement services. It helped mr. Haidari, for example, get settled in Flushing, Queens, where there are many Afghani immigrants.

Mr. Haidari entered the game as the goaltender but was momentarily confused about what jersey to wear. Teammates on the sideline yelled at him to come over and put on a jersey, but the other team – Millennium, which had largely Latin American and Caribbean players — was headed down field toward him, on attack.

“What to do?” he yelled, in confusion. He grabbed the jersey and pulled it on, and then blocked a barrage of shots.

Mr. Mghamis said he fled his home in Karbala, Iraq, in 2005, as a teenager and lived in Lebanon before coming to New York in 2009. He now lives in the Grand Concourse section of the Bronx and works at a bakery near his home.

He took off his cleats after the game and said, “In my country, we are born with soccer, so it feels good to play it again.”

On the Soccer Field, a Roster Full of Refugees


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