ALIVE and Kickin'
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.
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."
That doesn't scare these guys. "Back home," says Abe Awateh, the 33-year-old manager of the Somalian team, "soccer is the No. 1 thing. Any time of day, if you tell a guy there's a soccer game, they'll drop everything."
The Somalian players, some as young as 18, have been in the United States anywhere from two to ten years. They've settled in central Phoenix and the southeast Valley. Adjusting is difficult, Awateh says, but, hey, his people have been through worse. "These people are survivors. They survive many different types of situations."
At the moment, the Somalis are struggling to survive on the soccer field. A Somalian girl shrieks from her lawn chair whenever her team threatens to score, which isn't often. The relentless Vietnamese players, many of whom came as refugees years ago, have been playing together longer and are simply a better unit.
The Somalian defense crumbles like a stale breadstick, and the Vietnamese build a 4-0 lead before the first half is over. The Vietnamese spend halftime doing drills while the Somalis sit on the sidelines, exhausted. Ahmen Abdulkarim, AIRCI's finance director and himself a Somalian refugee, shakes his head and says solemnly of his countrymen: "They have brought this against themselves."
Lunam smirks. She knew the more experienced Vietnamese had a decisive advantage over the out-of-shape Somalis, whose team is barely weeks old. "I told those people to go easy on them," she says. "They just got organized."
The Vietnamese win the contest, 5-1.
Awateh, whose team is in for a disappointing five-game season, says, yes, similar experiences do unite the refugees. And the seeds of interaction are there: For instance, "The Iraqi--we have a few cultural links with them," he says. "The religion. The language. But there are those guys we don't have anything in common with, except the soccer game."
And when you're talking about soccer, try telling some of these people that it's just a game. Especially when there's a championship to be won.
Soccer is by far the planet's most popular sport. Outside the United States, the lines between soccer and politics blur; the game is a matter of national pride and, in some cases, life and death.
In 1970, Honduras and El Salvador went to war as the two countries played for the right to participate in the World Cup in Mexico.
The story is detailed in Polish war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Soccer War. The conflict occurred at a time when Honduran agricultural reform was forcing many relocated Salvadorans to return to their tiny cigar box of a country, irritating relations between the two nations.
The first two games of the best-of-three series were held alternately in the capital cities of Tegucigalpa and San Salvador. In both, fans spent the night pelting visiting teams' hotel windows with items such as rocks, rotten eggs, dead rats. They honked horns; they lit firecrackers. Each time, the visitors lost the game and were booed and spat upon at the airport on their way home.
In the second game, played in San Salvador, the hosts ran a dirty dishrag up the flagpole instead of the Honduran flag, which had been gleefully torched. Afterward, the Honduran coach said it was lucky his team had lost. Visiting Honduran fans were kicked and beaten as they fled toward the border. Two died. Many more were hospitalized.
Soon afterward, Salvadoran planes started dropping bombs on Tegucigalpa. The four-day war left 6,000 people dead and 12,000 wounded. It ended in a tie.
The deciding soccer game was held on neutral ground in Mexico. Salvadoran fans sat on one side and Hondurans on the other, with 5,000 armed Mexican police in between. El Salvador won, 3-2.
Folks do take their soccer seriously. Including refugees.
"This league was meant to create goodwill, not to exacerbate tensions," says Britt Dveris, AIRCI's executive director. "It's a challenge. We wanted to foster camaraderie and interaction among groups, but at times it can get too competitive. People are taking it too seriously."
It didn't take the refugees long to figure out social Darwinism's role in the land of opportunity. Competition is good, but winning is better. They are refugees of the Nineties. Last year, the undermanned Somalis recruited a few Mexicans to fill out their roster. Okay, so they were good players. The move ignited an uproar, prompting other squads to demand tighter restrictions and picture IDs.
"They talk and they fight just like any other teams," Lunam says. And while it's true that adult soccer leagues in Scottsdale and Mesa probably have their share of turbulence, it's unlikely any of it involves the Laotian New Year, which is what Lunam ran up against last year when she tried to finesse a league schedule around various refugee holidays.
"April was a bad time for Lao people," she says. "It was the New Year. They celebrate every weekend. Everybody thought they would win the championship, but they came to the games all exhausted and tired."
The Romanians won the title, narrowly defeating the Vietnamese.
This year, Lunam planned to start the season in February, but it was delayed for Ramadan, the sacred ninth month of the Islamic year observed with daily fasting by the Somalis, Iraqis and Bosnian Muslims.
On top of all that, there were work schedules to worry about. Many refugees, no matter what their education or skill levels, begin in minimum-wage jobs because of the language barrier and now-worthless credentials. A number of refugees work second jobs or overtime on weekends to support their families.
But finally it was mid-March, nearly time for the Afghan New Year, and Lunam had to act before the schedule bloated into the hot summer months. She announced the season would begin on March 23 with the Iraqis taking on defending champ Romania. With leadership changes, imminent New Year observations and other commotion occupying their time, the Laotians failed to field a team this time around.
The Valley's Iraqis, enjoying their first season in the AIRCI league, prove to be contenders, posting three straight wins after dropping their first game against Romania. Anyway, they insist the loss was a fluke: "Our goalkeeper did not attend that game," says team manager Jabir Al-Garawi, president of the Iraqi Association of Arizona. "The referee was not professional. We wish to play the Romanians again."
Al-Garawi and two brothers, Ghanim and Kamil, came to Phoenix from a harsh refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. Most Iraqi team members traveled the same pipeline.
They boast that their country grew out of the world's most ancient civilization. More important, they say, Iraq participated in the 1986 World Cup of soccer.
But the men are no longer welcome in the land of which they are so proud. Escape became necessary after they participated in a failed uprising against Saddam Hussein's government.
"We tried to change the government. To get more freedom," says 29-year-old Jabir, a seemingly mild-mannered man who sells framed pictures at Phoenix swap meets.
He had just earned a chemistry degree when the March 1991 uprising began on the heels of the Gulf War. Remnants of Hussein's army--which conquering U.S. forces ultimately spared--crushed the uprising in a month. Twenty thousand Kurdish and Muslim Shiite rebels were killed. The rest fled Iraq.
"If I stay there," says team captain and former actor Sattar Alaboodi, "that mean I accept that government. I tried to put that government out of power; why I stay there?"
Many rebels walked for days to reach the Saudi Arabian border, where they were herded into refugee camps to await processing for U.S. resettlement. The wait can last years; some camps, like those in Hong Kong and the Philippines, offer English-language training.
But the Iraqis say the Saudi government treated them as afterthoughts, packing them six to a tent, denying them water for several days at a time and allowing them to bathe only every two weeks. Meanwhile, sandstorms smothered the desert camp and temperatures soared to 125 or 130 degrees.
"The Saudi government was not good with the refugee," says jovial Kamil Al-Garawi, at 26 the youngest of the three brothers. "They make trouble with them. Some were killed, some jailed. Some were sent back to Iraq."
Despite the camp conditions, some found a way to get their feet on a soccer ball. "Because we love the game, we play," says team member Fadhil Allamy.
"Our team," says Jabir, "we take it very seriously. We didn't participate last year--too many people working. But we are the best this year.
Decades ago, Yugoslavian immigrant Ilyas Dedic, pioneer and patriarch of the Dedic family, also wanted to build a good life in this country, and his nephew and namesake is testimony to his success.
The younger Ilyas Dedic directs the Bosnian American Cultural Association of Arizona. He emigrated in 1974 from Yugoslavia and earned a marketing degree at Chicago's Loyola University en route into the toolmaking business founded by his uncle.
Dedic has a pale, thick body and a Midwest manner that belie an ability to break into fluent Bosnian at any moment.
The Bosnians, like the Iraqis, made a splash in their first soccer season two years ago. Now, whenever the team plays, the baby-faced Dedic roams the sidelines in a Chicago Bears jersey.
"Soccer--that's one thing which is very common to us and very strong," he says with a grin in his Ahwatukee business park office, a branch of his uncle's business. "America's the only country in the world that doesn't appreciate soccer to its fullest. If there's a way to get the heart pumping and beating, it's soccer."
War will do it, too. Before they were granted refugee status in June 1993, there were fewer than 100 Bosnians in Arizona, and most of them were Dedic's relatives. Now there are more than 1,500, the majority of them Bosnian Muslims. But there are also Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats and some mixed marriages, people forced to flee as their country fell under the whims of Serbian extremists.
"You can never predict what can happen in the world," says Catholic Social Services' Klimek, noting that a few years before the conflict in Bosnia, Yugoslavia operated a refugee camp for people fleeing Romania and Bulgaria.
Dedic, himself a Muslim, says the war has been portrayed as a civil war, which it wasn't, and as a religious war, which it also wasn't. "Ethnic cleansing was not a result of the war," he says, "but the reason for it."
Anything Muslim was targeted for annihilation. Mosques that stood for centuries, that had survived two world wars, were wiped out. Neighbors turned against Muslim neighbors.
When Bosnian refugees meet to share information, the gatherings also work as group therapy. Their existence demonized for unknown reasons, their homes burned, their relatives maimed and killed, they now seek to understand why. Sarajevo had become a broken cityscape where life wore on anyway, where a guy out buying groceries could have his head shattered by a sniper's bullet fired from hundreds of yards away.
So, the meetings. "It was important for people to realize they were part of a community that was willing to help," Dedic says. "Most people didn't know what the hell had happened to them. They had lived in that system for 40 or 50 years and, all of a sudden, everything they had been told about their lives was completely upside down.
"Your whole identity becomes a question mark."
They fled. "And when they realized where they were," he says, "when the adrenaline, I guess, or the excitement had slowed down--when they finally stopped running, if you will--they realized they were in a strange land, with a strange language, and they had to start their lives all over again."
Ilyas Dedic is an American now, and proud of it. His desk sports a set of drill bits encased in glass, a monument to Uncle Ilyas' achievement of the American dream. On the walls are a half-dozen framed photographs of military aircraft--Apache helicopters and other Yankee weapons currently deployed in his former homeland. Yes. A little ironic.
"Yeah, that's what we cater to. We make the tools for Apache propellers.
"I believe in destiny," he says. "God has mysterious ways."
Easter Sunday. Week three of the season. The previous weekend, Palm Sunday for Christians, an international incident broke out between the Vietnamese and the Bosnians. There were skirmishes all over the field. Referees were dissed. One Vietnamese brandished a baseball bat. It was like something out of that Mortal Kombat video game.
Bosnia won, 1-0.
In response to the uprising, Lilly Lunam will administer tough love. She readies a stack of clearly stated rule sheets to hand out to players.
A pair of Afghan team members, Ahbib Hassan and Ehsan Ahmadi, arrive and begin warm-ups. They'll face Vietnam today. The two were buddies in Afghanistan, but when the Russians started bombing, things got a little crazy and they ended up on the other side of the world. "Otherwise, nobody wants to leave this beautiful country," he says of Afghanistan. "You have house to live. Land to walk on. Lot of relatives. If you're happy, or comfortable, you would never leave."
Hassan has no idea whether his house is still there. But he became a U.S. citizen five years ago, and now Phoenix is his home. He is happy here now. "There's nowhere to go, anyway," he says.
Ahmadi, the Afghan goalie, is less skilled in English than his pal. He says he played soccer for money in Pakistan, where Afghan refugees were processed for U.S. resettlement. He wouldn't mind doing it again. As AIRCI staff arrive with game equipment, he utters variations on a theme: "Write it down, my phone number," he says. "If someone needs a good goalkeeper, call me."
Lunam calls the teams to order. The squads line up, the Afghans in black and white, the Vietnamese in yellow and blue. With delicate firmness and a touch of humor, she puts her minuscule foot down. She exhorts them to be good sports.
"Respect is a must for the referee," she says, her voice a meow amid a roar of chatter. "If you don't, you will be ejected from the field.
"Shake hands before and after the game. Even though you are mad as hell at each other. You have to shake hands.
"No bad language--even if it's in your own language. This is a friendly game. You have to be friends with each other.
"No shin guard, no play. I don't want you guys to have broken legs.
"That's all. No bad words."
They acknowledge her with applause.
On the field, Ehsan Ahmadi, the Afghan goalie, is lucky to elude an early assault on the goal. Moments later, he is not so lucky. In all, he is not so lucky nine times, and the Vietnamese crush the Afghans, 9-0.
The Bosnians warm up for their game against the Iraqis, which will be refereed by the Somalis. Unlike the other refugees, the Bosnians are primarily blond, which in some way renders them oddly out of place on the field. They look more . . . Arizonan. Ilyas Dedic comes into view, shaking hands like a Kiwanis president.
On the Iraqi end of the field, dark-browed men with drums begin rapping and chanting in Arabic. A woman in traditional head covering and dashiki-style dress squats on the grass to watch.
Already, Lunam says as the game begins, there is some mixture among the communities. The Somalis and the Vietnamese met during the off-season for a match or two. The Vietnamese also play some of the Valley's Mexican teams and bring Laotian players along. And the Romanians and Somalis now have agreed to play through the year once this season is complete.
"The interaction is slowly coming," she says. "They start recognizing faces, seeing each other at meetings."
Next year, she says, the Ethiopians want to field a team, maybe even the Sudanese. AIRCI has approached the Cubans, too, but their participation is doubtful. Because Cubans can more easily negotiate American society in their native Spanish, they mainstream faster; at the same time, they don't identify so much as strangers, which distances them from other refugees. For the others, feeling out of place is what binds them together.
Lunam isn't so sure she wants to mess with such a logistical and emotional nightmare again. Someone should tell these people it is just a game. "It's not like they're going to win a World Cup," she says.
Two weeks later, on the last weekend of the regular season, the Romanian coach throws a World Cup-intensity tantrum, tearing up the score sheet and throwing the pieces at the referee. "I suspended him," Lunam says later. "He's still mad at me. I told him next year, I'm not having this. I'm gonna have volleyball."
In the semifinals that follow, it's the Romanians against Vietnam, and Iraq versus Bosnia. Lunam nearly has to cancel the games because Iraq and Bosnia, both heavily Muslim, suddenly alert her to their New Year lunar observance. "They have to look at the moon," she says one frazzled afternoon. "I said, 'Why didn't you tell me ahead of time?'" But it was one of those things, apparently, that could only be determined in its own time.
The semifinals spell doom for Eastern Europe: Vietnam eliminates Romania, while inconsistent Bosnia is finished off by upstart Iraq.
The day of the championship, Cinco de Mayo, is warm and sunny, and the drums descend on Sahuaro Ranch Park. The Vietnamese drum is large and squat, Chinese-style, a pair of padded mallets pounding its broad top. The Iraqi drums resemble upside-down chalices, their rapping accented by a wail of Arabic singing. Arms flailing, team member Hussain Allamy does a graceful, twisting dance in the grass.
The Iraqi teammates sit near midfield in neon-green Umbro soccer shirts while captain Sattar Alaboodi, the former actor, breathes motivational fire in Arabic. Gesturing madly, he speaks in wide-eyed bursts, like a union leader reminding the masses why they're about to strike. Coach Diaa Alshimary, standing, places his hands on Alaboodi's shoulders and joins in: The strategy, he says, will be to punch at their opponents' left side, where he believes there is a defensive weakness.
In a move befitting the championship game, the rosters are announced over a pair of Bose speakers crouched in the grass while each player, in turn, jogs out and takes his ceremonial place at midfield to the pounding and rapping of the drums.
And the battle for the refugee soccer title begins. The Vietnamese pound away early, but their charges are snuffed by uncertain dribbling, their shots sail wide. The field teems with leaping bodies angling to head the ball.
Back and forth they go. The referees are letting them play; collisions send bodies twisting. The Vietnamese are strong offensively, the Iraqis strong defensively. The teams are getting nowhere.
BOP-bip-bip-bip, BOP-bip-bip-bip, flat fingers punishing the tinny Iraqi drums, one low, three high, in rapid succession.
Boom, boom, boom, goes the Vietnamese drum.
On the sidelines, some of the players' blond American wives and girlfriends are spread on a blanket, enjoying social hour. "We don't know what's going on," says Nicki Bell. "We just come out and watch. Later, they go, 'Did you see that?' and we say, 'Well, yeah.' 'Did you see that goal I made for you?' 'Oh, yes, it was beautiful.'"
Bell and friend Michelle Robert are not legally married to their Iraqi mates, but both have taken the Muslim oath they say betroths them in principle, which is just fine with Robert.
"They're the type," she says, "that once they find someone, that's it." She searches out her guy, Adil Atlimemy, on the field. There he is, she says, number 14. "They may look mean out there," Robert says, "but deep inside, they're sweethearts."
Her sweetheart will later be thrown out of the game for unsportsmanlike conduct.
In fact, it's not long before all hell breaks loose on the field. Alaboodi, the team captain, is restrained as he argues a call with the referee, who doesn't understand a word he's saying. In the middle of it all, one of the Iraqi drummers, believing Alaboodi has been ejected, charges onto the field and attacks the official. This is a big no-no, and it makes the team representing the most ancient civilization in the world look bad.
The Iraqi players, led by the Al-Garawi brothers, send the drummer whimpering off toward the parking lot, a park security cart on his tail.
After order is restored by some of Glendale's finest, the game begins again but is punctuated by scuffles. They happen so fast it's scary. Some of the Iraqi fans have a bone to pick with the Iraqi team manager, Jabir Al-Garawi. One of them, an Iraqi whose son is on the bench, argues that his progeny could turn the game around and that Jabir is a fool.
The game is scoreless at halftime, and agitated Iraqi spectators continue to approach Jabir with their protests. AIRCI staffer Ghulam Yaftali, a thin, stiff former Afghan refugee who looks like Pat Paulsen, mentions that 70 people were killed in Bulgaria at a heated soccer match two years ago.
"This is soccer," Yaftali says. If he is speaking whimsically, it does not show.
In the second half, the Vietnamese threaten again. A three-on-one strike raises an anticipatory cheer, but Alaboodi sweeps in like a desert wind to deflect the shot just as the Vietnamese forward prepares to kick.
BOP-bip-bip-bip, BOP-bip-bip-bip, go the Iraqi drums.
Boom, boom, boom, answer the Vietnamese.
The angry Iraqi fans peck away at Jabir in fiery Arabic as the day melts into early evening. Tensions remain high. A red-faced Vietnamese player trying to inbound trips over Iraqi spectators and curses. Another Vietnamese in a pink bandanna has to be restrained when he charges another player.
Like so many treaty talks, nothing is accomplished. The game ends in a scoreless deadlock.
After two overtime periods, it is still Vietnam 0, Iraq 0. Five direct kicks, then, will decide the championship. The crowd converges in a large circle around the south goal, where each goalie in turn will defend the gaping net while five players on the opposing team take their best shot from about 20 feet away. One on one.
It comes down to the final kicks. Ghanim, at age 31 the oldest Al-Garawi brother, sets and angles for the shot. He sputters, trying to fake out the goalie, and kicks it right to him. The Vietnamese fans go nuts.
Vietnam sends Pink Bandanna out for kick number five. Boom, boom, boom. The net looms as wide as a circus tent. The shot zips to the left. The goalie has no chance. Pink Bandanna raises his arms in victory.
Competition is good, but winning is sure better.
When the trophies are distributed, the Vietnamese player posing for a picture with the first-place trophy pulls close Iraqi player Hussain Allamy, who is holding the second-place trophy, for another photo. They beam in accord.
The scene of statesmanship eventually subsides, giving way to unpredictable tension. There is a comment, some banging on a car hood and then a sudden roar of Arabic.
It's the Parking Lot of Babel.
The exiled drummer is still here, still making trouble with the Al-Garawi brothers.
Just like that, it escalates, and a rustle of Iraqi explodes like one of those dust-cloud altercations in a cartoon. It's hard to tell who is fighting, who is trying to separate fighters, but above the fracas, the second-place trophy is held high, and now it bonks emphatically on somebody's head.
Jabir Al-Garawi leaps in and grabs the trophy away. Kamil, his brother, joins the fray and Jabir wails in frustration. The lot has become a nearly indistinguishable melange of bodies in the subtle light of dusk. An Iraqi civil war.
Vietnamese players and families pile stealthlike into cars and vans.
Iraqi players and fans scatter and mill and cluster in volatile pockets.
The uniformed white guy, radio in hand, looks anxious and keenly out of place--Boutros Boutros-Ghali in a golf cart, unsure exactly what, if anything, he should do.
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