Yesterday was World Refugee Day. It’s an international day to reflect on the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes and their countries because of violence. It is a bitterly somber day, and extra so because the world is facing a crisis on a scale not seen since WWII. But the story World Refugee Day, and the individual stories of individual refugees, cannot merely be a story of tragedy. It must also be a story of hope. And you know what? Soccer, this beautiful little game we love, is an important part of that hope. And today, I want to take a little time to think about that.
Refugees are a fundamental part of the global game. You can look around the professional game, and you’ll find plenty in the best leagues in the world. There’s Christian Benteke with Crystal Palace, Saido Berahino at Stoke City, Neven Subotić currently at Dortmund. Some of the biggest stars in the world, players like Luka Modric and Miralem Pjanić, were forced to flee as children. The idea that these people are doomed, that they have no future, simply is not true. And these players, the likes of the Xhaka brothers and Victor Moses, they are a testament that, even after such pain and devastation, if given a chance, there is a future.
That hope applies in the United States as well. I mentioned Subotić, whose family was resettled in the U.S. before he left to have a career in Europe. There’s also a domestic presence. Multiple refugees play in MLS. There’s Baggio Husidić of the LA Galaxy, whose family fled Bosnia during the war. There’s Kei Kamara, who tied for the Golden Boot in 2015. His family fled a civil war in Sierra Leone to settle in Ohio. There’s Osvaldo Alonso who claimed asylum after defecting from Cuba’s national team. And, of course, refugees have made it to the USMNT. Darlington Nagbe was born in Liberia and also forced to flee a civil war and was resettled in Ohio. The future likely holds more players with refugee backgrounds in store for the USMNT. There’s already a few in the youth teams, with our own Rob Usry highlighting the story of the U-20 and Atlanta United’s developmental team’s striker, Lagos Kunga.
What soccer offered to these players, and what it continues to offer to many other refugees around the world, is a chance to connect. You don’t have to know the language yet. You don’t have to understand the culture yet. So long as you can play, you can play. You can go out on the field and express yourself. On the field, you don’t have to be defined by who you are, the color of your skin, or what trauma you’ve been forced to escape. You can chance to choose to define yourself, to choose whether to pass or dribble or shoot. With the ball at your feet, the story is in your control, and you get to decide what is shared with your teammates and your opponents. Once you get to express yourself, people can understand you. And when that connection grows and flourishes, nothing off the field quite matters the same way. Because you are teammates...and you belong.
Soccer has become an important source of community for many refugees precisely for this reason. Whether it is in Toronto with the Syrian Eagles, or Kunga’s hometown of Clarkston, Georgia, the subject of the book Outcasts United, this is important work. And we should be proud of soccer’s participation in such work.