ALIVE and Kickin'

Refugees from around the world find common ground--and a few good rumbles--in a Valley soccer league of nations

The Vietnamese advance, firing from the left and right, but the Somalis refuse to yield. The shots keep coming, one after another, until, finally, the defense cannot hold. The Vietnamese score a goal.

On the sideline, their dozen or so tee-shirted fans break into an enthusiastic cheer.

It is a breezy, kite-flying day in March, on the opening weekend of league soccer sponsored by the Phoenix-based Arizona International Refugee Consortium Inc., or AIRCI. The Vietnamese wear bright yellow, the Somalis aqua blue. The lead referee is a Bosnian Muslim recently reunited with his wife and a child he'd never seen.

For two months this spring, Glendale's Sahuaro Ranch Park was transformed into a mini-World Cup of battling nations, a global foot fest featuring the shorts-wearing ambassadors of Valley refugee communities with their attendant fans and drums and emotional outbursts in a cacophony of foreign tongues. Weekend match-ups might pit the Afghans against the Iraqis, or the Bosnians versus the Romanians.

It is a combustible mix.
Lilly Lunam, the league's Lilliputian director, arrives in a huff, bearing jugs of water for the competitors. A former Laotian refugee, she is AIRCI's den mother, a four-foot whirlwind of schedule arranging and project managing. She puts the jugs in one spot, figuring players will have to mingle there, since friendly refugee interaction and mutual support are among the league's intents.

By halftime, the water jugs have been carted off to separate camps--a stark metaphor for the season itself.

It is not easy running a league whose players bring such disparate cultures to the field, not when your mission is at the mercy of those differences.

As if the volatility of athletic confrontation blended with prideful nationalism weren't enough, Lunam also must juggle myriad religious celebrations and work schedules--all of which refugees hold nearly as sacrosanct as the game of soccer itself.

The promise of the American dream is not restricted to immigrants, those who choose to leave their countries in search of a better life. It is presented also to refugees, those who believe they have no alternative but to leave, who are searching, basically, for a life at all; who because of political or religious beliefs or ethnicity would be in danger were they to return. Often, they have nothing to return to.

Most refugees escape worlds shaken by war and famine and torture and uprisings and failed uprisings.

More than 112,000 refugees entered the United States in 1994, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That year, the U.S. spent nearly $390 million helping them. Not that Uncle Sam was leading the global charge: According to the International Rescue Committee, the U.S. ranked dead last among industrialized nations in foreign aid, and resettled less than one fifth of 1 percent of the world's estimated 50 million refugees. As situations have stabilized in places like Bosnia and Mozambique, the globe's refugee population has fallen to about 35 million, the IRC says.

Southeast Asians make up by far the largest refugee population admitted to the U.S. in the past 20 years. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, according to 1994 figures from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, 1.18 million refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have entered the U.S.

Another 412,300 have come from the former Soviet Union. Other significant refugee repellents include Romania (40,300), Iran (39,000), Poland (38,000), Ethiopia (34,100), Afghanistan (31,200) and Iraq (19,100).

Nearly half of those who came in 1994 resettled in California or New York. Of the rest, about 1,200 came to Arizona, where conservative politics, particularly at a time when anti-immigration sentiments are on the boil, keep those who assist the refugees at low profile. "Not necessarily are the newcomers welcome," says Barbara Klimek, a former Polish refugee who now serves as refugee services supervisor for Catholic Social Services of Phoenix.

During 1995, the number of refugees who came to Arizona climbed to 1,939--about three fourths of them from Bosnia, Cuba and Vietnam.

Volunteer agencies such as Catholic Social Services and the International Rescue Committee provide resettlement services for a limited time, but after that refugees are pretty much cut loose to sink or swim in a promising but problematic society.

So AIRCI, funded by private donations and government grants, steps in where the volunteer agencies leave off. It was founded in 1993 by Valley refugee groups interested in fostering a community based on their common experiences, in giving some order to disrupted lives.

As bewildered parents focused on feeding their families and carving out a new life, refugee youths were left confused and aimless and prone to gang influences.

Something had to be done. The men were already playing soccer. AIRCI directors figured: Why not give a trophy? And a soccer league was born.

Lunam did not like the idea of a soccer league when she joined AIRCI two years ago, but the first season was already under way. She knew the perils of the sport. Aside from chess, though, it was the most agreed-upon and affordable recreation out there. All you needed was a field, a ball and a pair of goals to kick it through.

But, she says: "We can do other things. Soccer is so violent. Even when recreational. This is not something you can avoid."

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