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How Soccer Without Borders can help young refugees and immigrants adjust

A path to progress

Soccer Without Borders emphasizes team building as well as cultural exchanges among participants and civic engagement. It was recently awarded a prize for innovation in addressing social problems.

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    Ben Gucciardi is founder of Soccer Without Borders, which provides refugee and immigrant youths with a tool kit to overcome obstacles to growth.
    Courtesy of Soccer Without Borders
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The Syrian refugee crisis has drawn attention to how difficult it can be for newcomers to adjust to different surroundings.

One US organization that has been addressing this challenge, since well before the current refugee crisis, is Soccer Without Borders.

This nonprofit organization works to assist newcomer youths – refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants – through a variety of tools, including soccer. It was cofounded by Ben Gucciardi, a lifelong soccer player who recognized the benefits of teamwork and other rewards derived from such activity.

“I had this sense that there was a lot more potential in soccer than just playing the game,” Mr. Gucciardi says. “I saw this potential, and started to put together this idea to use the platform of a soccer team to educate about social issues.”

Soccer Without Borders was recently selected from out of some 170 global organizations as the winner of the 2016 Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize, which promotes innovative ideas that help solve social problems.

"Lost in the often heated, divisive debate surrounding immigrants and refugees, are thousands of kids who are doing all they can to make new friends and a new home,” says Umi Howard, director of the Lipman Family Prize, in a statement. “Soccer Without Borders understands the challenges young newcomers face, and has a thoughtful, creative approach that helps kids overcome isolation and imagine a better future."

Back in 2006, Gucciardi, who is based in Oakland, Calif., launched several pilot projects. The following year, after discussions with a colleague involved in the international refugee community, the program adopted its focus on underserved and marginalized refugee youth populations.

His objective was to create an environment in which soccer is a vehicle for youth development. He wanted it to be “a place where kids are learning, and feeling cared for.”

What began as one team soon grew to two, then three. As more youths from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and cultures wanted to participate, efforts began in additional cities.

“The idea of soccer really speaks to people,” he says.

Today, Soccer Without Borders operates in four US cities – Oakland, Baltimore, Boston, and Greeley, Colo. – as well as in Uganda and Nicaragua.

The program emphasizes not only team building, but also cultural exchanges among participants and civic engagement through team service projects and leadership opportunities. In addition, the organization provides educational workshops, including language development support.

For the players who take part – hailing from more than 35 countries – the blend of activities can be especially effective, Gucciardi says.

“You see a lot of cases where there are young people who are sort of at a crossroads,” he says. “To really be able to help them make a good decision and really get on track – it is the type of work that is really needed.”

Anmar, an alumnus of the program who is now in his early 20s and whose last name was not given, was originally from Iraq and moved to the United States.

“I joined in 2011 and it helped me with adjusting to the lifestyle here. I met people from all around the world who were just like me,” he says in comments that were provided to the Monitor by Soccer Without Borders. “They were like another family away from home, and they helped me take my mind off of the hardships that I experienced in the past couple years.”

The organization aims to provide a mentor – from the paid and volunteer staff and coaches – to each participant.

“That is really motivating for them to do better in school,” Gucciardi says. The program has seen success among its regular participants, who have high graduation rates – about 95 percent.

Gucciardi, who has prior experience in youth development and heads the program’s Oakland operations, is driven in large part by the meaningful contributions that refugees and immigrants can make to communities across the country.

“They really add a great deal to the cities where they come,” he says. He also touches on some of the negative comments made about refugees in recent months: “I see us very much standing in opposition to the rhetoric of ‘no refugees welcome’ in these countries, or bans on Muslims. We are not explicitly political in our work, but the work we do [makes] a significant statement.”

As the winner of the Lipman Family Prize, Soccer Without Borders receives $250,000, as well as executive training and support from the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania.

Says Mr. Howard of the Lipman Family Prize: "We are honored to support them in accelerating their vision.”

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