Zooming In For Newcomer Refugee And Immigrant Youth

Warshan (right) at a peaceful march in Baltimore during the 2015 protests
Warshan (right) at a peaceful march in Baltimore during the 2015 protests

At Soccer Without Borders, we aim to build a more inclusive and peaceful world through soccer. We do this through holistic youth development programs that equip newcomer refugee and immigrant youth for success in America. This year has been an especially challenging year for us and for the youth we serve, as we grapple with the divisive rhetoric that has found its way to schoolyards, cafeterias, community streets, and even soccer fields.

In trying to unpack all of the layers, my mind often goes back to this analogy that Sarah Koenig used on the most recent season of Serial. In the first episode, she references the children’s book Zoom by Istvan Banyai. It’s a picture book with a single illustration on every page; the basic concept is that each time you flip the page, the perspective zooms out. So it begins with a picture of a rooster, and then you flip and see two children looking through a window at the rooster. Flip again and you learn that the children are on a farm, looking through a window at the rooster. Every few pages there is a twist. For example, the farm is actually a model in a toy store, and the toy store scene is actually on a stamp of a postcard. And so it continues, zooming out and changing what you thought you knew with each flip of the page.

As I think about the challenges we face as an organization and a society, I picture someone like Warshan, a graduate of Soccer Without Borders Baltimore, on the first page. His family fled violence in Iraq, leading to their permanent resettlement in Baltimore when Warshan was in middle school. Transition, language barriers, and an uncertain future are common threads in our participants’ stories.

Then we zoom out, and we consider the communities, school districts, and cities where young people like Warshan find themselves. Too often, they are under-resourced and unable to meet the unique needs of these students. Collectively, high schools are graduating English language learners at rates lower than any other demographic, hovering around 60 percent.

Zoom out again and we have a nation that is struggling with its identity as an immigrant nation, with growing divides across race, religion, and culture. Growing narratives suggest that to be a young person of color is to be a criminal, and to be a Muslim is to be a terrorist.

Zoom to a global level and we see that more than 65 million people are forcibly displaced. This is the new reality for humanity; it represents 1 in every 113 people in the world, and half of them are children. These children, like Warshan when he arrived to the United States, have had no control over the circumstances that led to leaving home, and no choice in where they ended up. From this global vantage point, it is too easy to lose sight of the individual: their hopes, dreams, talents, and potential.

When we zoom in, the picture looks much more familiar, more accessible. Here, we see children, people, and families. The journey to find new home is complex, and often riddled with trauma, deprivation, and too often violence. Those who undertake this journey are the most resilient, hopeful, kind, and courageous people I’ve ever met. They are humble and generous. They are active learners and valuable community members. They are survivors.

As newcomers to this country and to their communities, refugee and immigrant youth face a wide range of obstacles at the onset, and their success is far from assured. At Soccer Without Borders, our programs focus on providing the key skills and supports that newcomers need in order to reach their full potential, including English language skills, positive adult and peer relationships, and access to a strong community of support. When you zoom back out from that starting place- a point of welcoming and investing in newcomer youth- it’s much easier to wade through the noise of the divisive rhetoric and see the full potential of those who have already been dealt some of the world’s most difficult cards. Let’s not lose sight of where these stories begin. Our communities, our country, our world, will only be stronger for it.

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