Philly’s refugee and immigrant families are connecting through community soccer

About 50 families participated in this weekend’s event in Castor Gardens.

soccer7
Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn
0029 (2)

It was a dreary Sunday at first, as clouds hung over Tarken Rec Center in Castor Gardens. It even rained briefly, though that didn’t stop members of Philly Open Soccer from setting up nets throughout the playground. After all, they’d already been rained out twice.

This time, the weather held out and about 50 families made their way to the community event. Children as young as five could be seen kicking and tossing soccer balls around, their parents cheering them on as they made constant goals.

Many of them arrived very recently to the United States.

“The biggest challenge has been preparing an event without knowing how many kids and families would attend,” Alex Ponsen, external director for Philly Open Soccer, said. The group invited people of all ages to play, and hoped for a large turnout, but didn’t require pre-registration.

“This is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city,” Ponsen said of the Northeast neighborhood. “Sometimes it can be difficult to build connections across linguistic and cultural barriers. But soccer is unique in its power to transcend language and culture, and we saw it as the perfect way to bring people together here.”

soccer11
Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Aamal Alnajjar, originally from Syria, has been living in Philadelphia for over a year now and, through an interpreter, said that she feels very comfortable in the city and does not feel as if anyone has shown her ill will since her arrival.

“It’s nice that it’s a gathering that’s bringing different people together and it’s also a very good opportunity for them to change their daily routine because they don’t get to do things like that very often,” Alnajjar said. “So it’s a good opportunity for Arabs and other peoples to get together and hang out and see each other.”

She said events like these are important for the kids, who don’t have many opportunities to get their energy out during the school day.

In order to connect with the families like Alnajjar’s, Ponsen and his team identified the main organizations that serve the city’s refugee and immigrant communities. From there, a core group of partners were formed that included HIAS Pennsylvania, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

Founded by University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. students, Philly Open Soccer uses the sport to teach team-building and leadership skills — typically to West Philly youths.

POS approached HIAS refugee education coordinator Valeri Harteg several months ago, inviting the organization to collaborate in planning the community-based soccer event. Harteg and HIAS assisted on both connecting and communicating with the families.

Some of the participating families came from the after-school programming that HIAS facilitates at Gilbert Spruance School and Northeast High School. Harteg’s main role in the event was to promote it to refugee children and their families, and to also assist with flyer translation.

“For immigrant and refugee populations in particular, there is something about soccer that builds an instant bridge between individuals and even whole communities,” Harteg said.

soccer2
Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

“For our youth, soccer is something familiar in a new place that is full of unfamiliar things. When our students have the chance to kick a ball and chase it down the field, they momentarily leave behind the stress of the change they’ve had to experience by moving to a new city, school, and neighborhood.”

Harteg said she hopes that the newer families who participated felt a sense of belonging and that those who have been in the U.S. for some time gain a deeper sense of connection with their neighbors and surrounding community.

“I hope that families feel recognized and valued as members of the community, that they feel like they are partners in carrying out something positive for their children and their neighborhood,” Harteg said. “As part of Alex’s vision to establish an ongoing soccer camp in this neighborhood, I hope that, for those students for whom it is a good fit, they get excited about the possibility of continuing to come together on the soccer field.”