Teen Creates Camp for Refugees

It started with one of the most universal acts in the human experience: a kid kicking a ball. It transcends language and culture, and for one week in July it brought together kids from six countries on three continents and sparked life-changing events, all for a game of soccer in the park.

It was a simple idea from 14-year-old Atticus Hoffman. The son of local filmmaker Michael Hoffman and screenwriter Samantha Silva, Atticus loves soccer. He plays competitively and either thinks about it or does something soccer-related most days.

So when he read an article in The New York Times about a Georgian refugee who started a refugee soccer team, it inspired Atticus to do something to help Boise's growing refugee community. As a relocation center, Boise is home to more than 5,000 refugees who came here from strife-ridden areas such as Bosnia and Afghanistan, Sudan and the Congo.

He started with a few of his soccer buddies and his coach at Idaho Rush Soccer. They created the One World Soccer Camp, which took over soccer field eight at Ann Morrison Park?for a?week.

It began with modest ambitions: to use soccer as a vehicle to help the kids feel more comfortable in the community, Atticus said.

"My goal for myself is to have a good time and meet these kids," he said. "My hope for them is that they would be introduced into the mainstream Boise culture, maybe get them on a team or something."

Atticus started small, calling his parents' friends for donations and other soccer families for used equipment and clothing. Then he went to community organizations such as the Downtown YMCA for transportation, the Agency for New Americans for coordination with the refugees, Boise Parks and Recreation Department for soccer balls and shin guards, and the Boise Co-op for food.

"I've been really surprised at how kind and generous this community has been," Atticus said. "No one said no. They think, 'Maybe this kid can pull it off. Why not give him a chance?'"

The camp quickly became something greater than a fun event in the park. It may have more impact on the refugee and greater Boise communities than anyone expected.

"I went into it like it was all going to work out. I figured I had nothing to lose by trying to do this. If it didn't work, nobody would think badly of me for trying. If it worked, then it would be so amazing. It would blow my mind away," Atticus said.

The first day was near chaos. Atticus and friends nervously paced the field while coaches set up nets and put air in balls, and volunteers covered picnic tables with donated pairs of soccer shoes.

How many kids might come? They were told 35. They had enough equipment and clothing for about 50. When the final bus unloaded, 68 kids came to play. The next day, more than 80 children--Turks, Afghanis, Sudanese, Burundi, Congolese, Russians--flooded the park.

It was overwhelming to everyone involved, said Tony Colavecchia, soccer coach and technical director for Idaho Rush. With years of college-level coaching behind him, Colavecchia shifted his focus to community soccer and moved to Boise with the organization.

"I don't think anyone realized what we were really getting into. Now we've opened this can of worms, and it's a good thing, because we see this need, but we have to figure out what's next," he said.

The kids lined up to try on shoes and learn how to put on shin guards. Though many had played soccer in their homelands, at refugee camps and even near their Boise apartments, few had ever seen proper gear. Some couldn't believe it was for them, said Samantha Silva, Atticus' mom.

"That first day, a little boy came and tugged on my shirt. He pointed to his shin guards, socks and his shoes and said, 'Are these mine?' I said, 'Yes, they're yours.' And he said, 'Forever? Forever?' It was so sweet," she said, smiling and tearing up.

That story echoed across the soccer field as the children realized they could take their soccer balls home. It was really theirs.

The kids stood outside their apartment complexes at 7:30 a.m. each day, balls in hand, soccer socks on (if not their shoes), waiting for the YMCA bus to pick them up.

Stephen Khartoum, 9, grew up in Sudan. He and his friends played soccer with balls they made by packing mud around a head of lettuce and baking it in the sun, he said.

"Here if I lose my ball, I can just go get another one. I don't have to make it," he said.

Stephen now has a new dream. "I want to play soccer in the pros."

By the camp's third day, things had settled into a routine. About 60 kids showed up. Some couldn't make it because they had no transportation.

Girls from Somalia came to play in long skirts and head scarves. Teenage boys from Russia traded baggy denim for soccer shorts and jerseys. Whether or not soccer was their top priority, every child got something from the experience.

Friendship was the biggest lesson 10-year-old Samim Fahim took away. Samim came with his sister Diana, 8. They were born in a Russian refugee camp after their parents fled conflict in Afghanistan.

"It doesn't matter what country you are, just play," he said. "Most kids are feeling that way. We're having fun, getting more energy, meeting new people and making friends. That's really good. It's good to know more people."

This was their first time playing soccer in a team environment. Since taking their ball home, they've played every day.

"Yeah, I love soccer," Diana chimed in. All the kids within earshot agreed adamantly.

Lessons were learned on all sides of the experience. Atticus took home a reality check.

"I've learned that these kids don't have much," he said. "And I'm sure just getting a pair of shoes and a ball and for a real coach to acknowledge them and say, 'You did a really great job,' meant something."

One of the most difficult challenges for refugees is to find significant ways to connect with and participate in the greater community, said Yasmin Aguilar, who wears many hats at the Agency for New Americans, a group that helps refugees resettle and work toward an independent life.

Aguilar came to Boise in 2000, herself a refugee from Afghanistan who spent eight years in Pakistan waiting to get to the United States. Though she has medical training, she chose to work at the agency because, "It is my passion. It's easy for me to understand what they're going through."

In the fabric of Boise's community, the refugee population is fragile, Aguilar said. They must overcome obstacles that are difficult to comprehend.

One girl from Afghanistan showed scars from her bullet wounds. One brother and sister from Africa told of how they watched their mother be killed.

On top of that, they're dependent on the kindness of others for almost everything they have. They're learning English and are isolated in apartment complexes when they're not at school.

"This (camp) was so important for these kids to connect with other cultures and talk about healthy topics like soccer and have fun," Aguilar said. "These kids are hungry for this kind of thing. They all have talents, and everything costs. Their parents can't afford it so their dreams get suppressed."

Part of the problem is that many of these kids and their families are not visible in the community. That's why finding ways to integrate them into the larger community is so important, Silva said. Many people in Boise don't know there is such a large refugee population here.

"I feel that these kids lead invisible lives," Silva said. "This community is extraordinarily generous in welcoming them, and if asked they'd do anything for them. No one said no to Atticus, but because we can't see them you don't know to do anything."

What now?

The camp ran for four days and was considered in every estimation a success. There were no conflicts. Communication happened smoothly, despite the number of different languages spoken on the field.

"Soccer is the world's game. It's a universal sporting language. It's a simple game, there's not a lot of equipment, there's a position for nearly every child. It brings people together," Colavecchia said.

"Atticus is a very unique individual, a special kid. When he came to me with this idea, I thought it really ties with the club's philosophy and my personal ideals."

Colavecchia took as many names and birthdays of kids as he could and started thinking of how he could place them on one of his Rush competitive, greater metro or recreational teams.

"We didn't have a plan after this week," Colavecchia said. "Now we have to figure out how to make this happen."

One of the original intentions was to find a way for the kids to play on a team. He's looking for coaches who are willing to take on at least two refugee players.

But all that takes money. Colavecchia wants to find a sponsor who would put up the $10,000 or $15,000 it would take to pay for 35 or 40 kids.

Colavecchia will coordinate with Boise City Parks and Recreation,which is already targeting the refugee community with programs, said Doug Holloway, superintendent of recreation services for the city.

"When Atticus called me and asked if we could help, we were all over it. We want to see this grow. Could it happen again, could it go longer? Can we keep these kids engaged?" he said.

Some ideas include informal soccer nights in neighborhood parks where the kids live, providing transportation to regular soccer events.

"It will be better for the entire community if we can do this," Holloway said.?

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