Young Refugees Learn About US on the Soccer Field

25 January, 2016

Young refugees in the United States are learning about each other and their new country on the soccer field.

One player is 13-year-old Win La Bar. His family is from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Win was born in Thailand after his family fled their Burmese homeland.

Win is one of about 200 refugee children who play at the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club, in the western state of Arizona. The players in the club's 12 teams are between 6 and 18 years old.

Win lives with 10 family members. They share two apartments. Win has his own bedroom, but his sister sleeps in a room with her three young children. Win's parents and three other children live in another apartment that has two bedrooms.

He says he loves his new home because "I've got a better chance to get a better education, and (I) get to play more soccer without worrying about gunshots." He says he does not want to have a difficult life like his parents have had.

The soccer club has helped him make friends and learn about his new home. His coaches have taught his family about life in the United States.

He says it was "very different, very hard to adapt into this world. It's hard to understand," he says, because he had never seen cars or planes. "It's very different from where I used to live."

Win says he does not remember how he learned English. He says one of the coaches has helped him and his younger brothers since the family arrived in Phoenix. He says he is a good student.

Alondra Ruiz works for the soccer club. She brings the players to games and drives them home. Sometimes she drives for hours a day, and hundreds of kilometers a week.

She says during the rides the students ask her many questions about the United States. "I get the opportunity to teach kids things that maybe their parents can't answer," she says.

Ruiz says she tells them "you're not different. You're here. And you can become anything you want."

"Being part of this club, and keeping kids busy is very rewarding to me because it's good for them, and it's good for the future," she says.

"I listen a lot when I'm driving," she says. "What I hear often is that they're being treated different at school, that they're not being accepted. I relate to that 100 percent. I wasn't accepted coming from Mexico."

Ruiz was an immigrant child. She grew up in the Southwest United States.

Ruiz is married, and her two children are adults. She is not in the United States legally. Her husband also came to the United States from Mexico as a child. He has permission to work in the U.S. He cares for plants and trees at a college.

More than 70,000 refugees from many countries have been resettled in Arizona in the past 10 years. The U.S. State Department says more than 33,000 refugees have begun new lives in Arizona since 2002. Only Texas, California, New York, Minnesota, Florida and Washington have accepted more refugees than Arizona.

In the past year, refugees from 13 countries have moved to Arizona. There are players from at least 12 countries in the soccer club this year. And Alondra Ruiz says the club has had players from at least 24 countries.

Zara Doukoum knows what the other refugee students have dealt with, including when people did not understand what they were saying when they were just learning to speak English.

"Every refugee in America went through that," she says.

This year she will graduate from Central High School, the public school attended by most of her teammates. It will be four years since she arrived in Phoenix with her mother and three sisters. Her father died seven years ago.

She wants to attend college. She may play soccer or tennis.

"If that doesn't work for me, I see myself just helping around, giving back to the community the way people gave to me," she says.

Dina Berman is a professor at the University of Miami. She researches child refugee education and writes for the Migration Policy Institute. She says putting refugee children in schools is difficult because they may not have the same level of education as children their age in the U.S.

Win La Bar said he had a difficult time when he started school in the United States. He says people did not understand him.

"When I (went) to school and I (met) new people, (at first), they (didn't) really have respect for me," he says. "But as they (got) to know me, they (had) a better feeling for me, and became, like, good to me."

I'm Christopher Jones-Cruise.

And I'm Anna Matteo.

VOA'sVictoria Macchi reported on this story from North Phoenix, Arizona. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted her report for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

settle – v. to move to a place and make it your home

adapt – v. to change your behavior so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation

resettle – v. to begin to live in a new area after leaving an old one; to settle again