Kids who learned soccer in refugee camps team up here

When a bunch of curious kids showed up last month for the first meeting of the AK Fugees soccer team, they didn't utter a word to each other.

"They didn't even say hi to each other," team manager Lue Chang said.

"They didn't get along," coach Chad Bauman said.

These days, Chang and Bauman sometimes have to shout to get the attention of kids who are talking or joking around with each other. Though separated by any number of things -- most notably language, culture and ethnicity -- the Fugees are united by a shared experience and a shared love.

They all came to Anchorage as refugees from countries in turmoil - Somalia, Bhutan, Gambia, Congo, Ivory Coast.

And they all love soccer.

The AK Fugees are children of the world playing the world's game. Most grew up playing barefoot in refugee camps, and now for the first time they are playing on an organized team in an organized league. In cleats.


The Fugees -- they get their name from the word refugee -- are playing in this week's Far North Invitational soccer tournament at Kincaid Park.

The boys range in age from 14 to 18 and all arrived in America with soccer skills developed mostly in African refugee camps. Assistant coach Musa Marenah, who is from Gambia, speaks four languages, which means the coaching staff can communicate in two-thirds of the languages spoken by the players.

"There's six different languages," Chang said. "English isn't second-nature to them."

It's a barrier, he said, but everyone works through it.

"I've heard all of them say 'goal,' '' Chang said with a smile.

Goals were hard to come by for the Fugees on their first day of tournament play Friday, when they lost a pair of matches, 8-0 and 9-0. For the first time, they were playing comp teams made up of players who have been coached for years and in some cases have been playing on the same team for years.

But for the Fugees, wins and losses truly aren't what playing soccer is all about.

It is incumbent on refugees to the United States to be employed, to learn English, to become part of their new community. Refugee kids confront the challenge of fitting in every day they attend school. That's why, when Catholic Social Service's Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program (RAIS) decided to start a soccer program for kids this summer, organizers wanted to keep the kids on the same team, even though the players span several age divisions and include boys and girls.

"We didn't want the kids spread out on different teams," said Karen Ferguson, the RAIS program director. "It would be them yet again trying to integrate and assimilate into the American -- which they need to do. But they also need the chance to be refugee kids and not always try to fit in."

Fourteen-year-old Tulsi Kafle, a refugee of Bhutan by way of Nepal, said it's been fun getting to know other refugees.

"It's really cool 'cause you can build your communications with other people and make new friends -- and 'cause we get to learn their tricks and their culture."

Kafle said he's learned "a rocket free kick" from an African teammate -- and how to bend it like Beckham from YouTube.

Kafle said he started playing soccer when he was 5. Omar Ibrahim, a 17-year-old who played for West High this spring, learned when he was 3. Most of the Fugees came to the game at similarly young ages, though few have received real coaching or played on organized teams. As a result, the younger kids are still learning basic rules like offsides, Bauman said. And players from Gambia are learning that some of the rules they grew up with are different in America.

Ibrahim, who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya a year after his parents escaped from Somalia, said the team is a way for refugee kids to meet others who are also adjusting to a new country and a new culture. His family lived in Tennessee for a year before moving to Anchorage, "and for the first month I didn't go out of the house because I didn't know anyone," he said.

Olga London, the youth supervisor for RAIS, said the idea of a youth soccer team for refugee children has been around for awhile, and for obvious reasons. "They were born with this game," she said.

The notion picked up steam when Ferguson attended a conference last year and listened to keynote speaker Luma Mufleh, who several years ago started a refugee team in Clarkston, Ga. Though not initially welcomed by the town, the Fugees have since won acceptance and have been the subject of a film and several national news stories. Mufleh gave RAIS permission to use the same name.

The AK Fugees are funded mostly by donations and fundraising, London said. When enough money was raised to buy cleats and matching yellow jerseys, the kids were thrilled, as they demonstrated the next day when RAIS held an event for its youth music program.


"Several kids showed up totally decked out in cleats, shin guards and shirts," London said.

London serves as the Fugees' team mom. You don't often see parents at Fugees games, she said, because every adult refugee must be employed and is often working during games and practices, and because almost all of the families use public transportation. Most live in Mountain View, London said, and games and practices are on the other side of town.

In their second match Friday, the Fugees lost a player to a red card when he was booted for physical play with a minute or two left in the match. Ferguson didn't attempt to rationalize or justify the kid's behavior, but she used the occasion to explain something about refugees.

"If you are a refugee you are extremely persistent. You are the squeaky wheel. Your assertiveness sometimes borders on aggression, or otherwise you don't survive the conditions you live in," she said.

The Fugees were wholeheartedly welcomed this summer into the Spyder League, a mixed-age, mixed-gender recreational soccer league that is all about fun.

Spyder director Cristy Hickel said she realized right away that many of the Fugees were bigger and more skilled than others in the league, so she put together a pair of teams featuring skilled athletes who compete with her daughters, skier Tori and hockey player Zoe, and created a three-team division with them and the Fugees.

"At first they said, 'Girls can't play soccer,' and then Tori dangled through them and scored a goal," Hickel said. "We've been throwing culture shock at each other left and right."

Having the team around has been an education, she said.


"This is a whole group of Anchorage I didn't know about," Hickel said. "What it's taught me is that they're proud - proud to be here, and proud of their own culture. I took on a whole new view of this program.

"They brought something to our group. It's been special for us this summer."

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

Sports Illustrated article about the Georgia Fugees

New York Times article about the fugees