Teammates high-five a Syrian girl wearing a headscarf after she maneuvers a soccer ball past her opponents and kicks it into the net.
The group of 19 middle-schoolers playing in the gym at Vanguard Collegiate Middle School come from more than a dozen countries. All are part of Soccer Without Borders, a national nonprofit after-school program that helps integrate refugee children into American society through soccer.
“It’s the universal game and brings people together from all over the world,” says Casey Thomas, director of the Baltimore program.
The number of refugees resettled in the state of Maryland has increased by 65 percent in the last decade, with Baltimore receiving the largest share. From 2010 to 2014, Baltimore received 2,877 refugees, according to the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees.
Most of the refugees arrive from war-torn countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Children are immediately enrolled in the Baltimore public-school system, where organizers say they struggle to fit into the U.S. urban environment.
“A lot of our students have experienced bullying, either in school or in their communities,” says Thomas. Soccer Without Borders includes team-building exercises and cultural training.
One of the participants, Raissa Kaossele, 15, says Soccer Without Borders helped her come out of her shell after she moved to Baltimore. She and her mother escaped their native country, the Central African Republic, after two rebel groups began burning houses and killing people in her village.
For months, Kaossele struggled to learn English and to make friends, and she spent most afternoons crying when she returned home from school. When someone told her about the soccer program for refugees, she decided to join. Along with helping students to make friends, the program offers tutoring for homework. Kaossele says it has helped improve her English and boosted her confidence.
“I speak out now,” she said. “I don’t let things bother me so much.”
The Baltimore program launched in 2009 and offers after-school and summer programs at one middle school and one high school in Baltimore. It is currently expanding to another middle school and is organizing an all-girls high school team.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.