One of the largest migrations of refugees to the United States in the last decade has gone largely unnoticed on the national
stage. But not in Akron.
In 2006, the Bush administration broke a logjam over the fate of a hundred thousand people who had been forced by the tiny Himilayan kingdom of Bhutan across the border into what became sprawling U.N. refugee camps in Nepal. Many remained there for a generation.
The U.S. said it would accept as many as 60,000 of them. Over the next eight years, that decision shrank seven camps to two. And it brought 5,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese to Michael Kane’s neighborhood perched on the literal North Hill of Akron.
“The charisma, the spirit, the happiness that myself and everyone around this team experiences is just astounding. To see their optimism, their smiles, and then to realize we may have gotten mad because we broke a shoelace this morning kind of puts things in perspective.”
'Soccer is simple and ... in my heart'
Kane runs a small sign-making business. He also coaches soccer at North High School. And a team that barely had enough kids for a single varsity squad a decade ago now has some 40 players – speaking at least five languages.
A national version of this story ran on NPR’s Morning Edition today. It is available at: http://n.pr/1L1KegT
That’s because the Nepalis aren’t the first refugees on his team. The International Institute of Akron – just down the street -- has partnered in resettlement efforts for decades. So North High School – now the most diverse school in the state of Ohio -- includes Burmese, Iraqi, Karen and other kids whose families have fled the world’s hottest political spots.
Boo Le -- named for the hospital in the camp on the Thai/Burmese border where he was born – says the kids on the team figure it out.
“Soccer is simple. If you know how to play, you play. You don’t have to say a lot. I can feel it. It’s in my heart.”
Boo Le is a junior and co-captain. He arrived in Akron when he was 8, but soccer started long before that.
“It was so rare to see ball in my country. We just make ball with bags and stuff.”
So the kids arrive with passion and unique ball-handling skills. North High School’s athletic director, Carrie Stewart, says what they need to learn is nuance.
"I liken it to street basketball. You’ll see kids playing street basketball all the time and sometimes that doesn’t translate to the basketball floor. It takes a different skill set to be that disciplined, take direction from a coach. I will say, generally one of the big differences is these kids are so grateful for the experience they probably take direction better.”
North has no home soccer field and practices on a not-even-slightly-regulation-size patch of weeds, grass and dirt that used to be a softball field. The shin guards and shoes are mostly donated by other teams. And Stewart says people in the community who have heard about the team have been known to pull up with trunk full of stuff from Dick’s sporting goods.
Coach Alex on the competition
Alex Quay went further. He’s a lawyer in Akron who was shopping for an inner-city school to work with.
He’s now Coach Alex.
“I guess the most surprising thing is that we’ve done as well as we have against a lot of the schools that have more traditional white middle class kids who’ve grown playing with travel teams and all that stuff and we’ve got a bunch of kids who just love the sport.” :12
North made it to the city-series championship game last year and hopes to win it this year. It’s started this season 1-1-1, with the loss to a suburban soccer behemoth. Boo Le says he needs that exposure.
“I want to see how a good player plays. If I see good player, I become better.”
Soccer and surgery
Meg Dhimal – also known as Monaj – is a senior defenseman who learned the rudimentary game in a Nepali camp before he came to Akron at age 12.
He missed a key practice before North’s first game. And Coach Kane was just fine with that.
Manoj was helping his brother take his citizenship test. He’ll take his own later this month. Then he’ll graduate from Akron’s early college program with an associate’s degree and after that …
“I want to become a doctor, like a family physician or a neurosurgeon.”
Menoj says Coach Kane cares about life beyond soccer.
“Coach Kane is great. Not just soccer. He also talks about life. ‘You need to work hard. Not everybody’s going to be a great soccer player, so you guys need to focus on education as well as soccer.’ So he helps us with life as well as with soccer.”
Nods and smiles
That’s not so say there are no wrinkles. Kane remembers trying to explain the nuances of off-sides – a gray area even among the pros.
“I looked around and said, ‘Does everyone understand off sides?’ And I got a resounding nod and smile, ‘Yes coach.’ Shortly thereafter we had our first scrimmage against Ravenna and by halftime, we had 20 off-sides calls racked up.”
Then again, Kane says, he catches himself nodding and smiling too. Sometimes to be polite when he doesn’t understand. And sometimes because his team is a joy.
So for many, soccer is a great uniter in an Akron neighborhood founded by Italian immigrants, marred by vacant houses and storefronts, and now undergoing a world of change.
Myna Shahata and his brother David came here from Egypt as kids in the '80s. Since most of the families of the North High School players don’t drive, the brothers often make up half of the cheering section when North travels. They also have started a club team in the neighborhood, and Shahata says recruiting comes easy.
“The world comes together with the ball. We just said ‘soccer’ and they showed up.”
And they’re likely to keep showing up. The International Institute of Akron is preparing for the next wave of refugees – likely from another place where soccer – even if it’s played with plastic bags and Pepsi cans -- is the universal language.