A Matter Of Teamwork

For Iraqi Teens Living In A New - And Sometimes Unwelcoming - Land, Community Is Found On A Baltimore Soccer Field

July 05, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

The lanky 16-year-old in a fluttering tank top tapped a red soccer ball every few strides as he streaked toward the goal. With a defender in pursuit, he set his feet and launched a shot that missed by a mile.

But it was the chance that counted.

For Mazen Abdulwahab, it's been a traumatic path from his native Iraq to this lush field in Northeast Baltimore, where he and eight other Iraqi boys were joyfully scrimmaging on a breezy June afternoon.

Abducted by militants at age 13, he endured two weeks of captivity in Baghdad until his family scared up $20,000 in ransom. Earlier this year, as a refugee still adjusting to Baltimore, he suffered a broken nose and bruises after fellow students from Patterson High jumped him, landing him in the hospital overnight.

Here on the soccer field, life was more carefree. Mazen and his refugee pals from Iraq were starting a team; the scrimmage was part of their preparation. Even as they assimilate to life in America, these one-time strangers have formed a tight bond cemented by common culture, language, dislocation - and love of soccer.

All they needed now was a league, or at least some opponents.

But that was easier dreamed up than done. One issue was the lack of summertime youth soccer in Baltimore City. Most kids play baseball. The Iraqi boys' age range (12 to 16) posed another problem. Any league they might find would likely have two-year age groups. Beyond that, they had bad timing: Summer was already under way.

Unaware of these hurdles, or maybe just undeterred, the boys plowed ahead with planning.

"We just want to make a fun time for us, make a good team," said Mazen, who has a wide smile and bright inkwell eyes. "Soccer is the first sport in the world."

By mid-June they had made Rawan Mumayiz their captain. The 14-year-old with a raspy voice and an open face hatched the team idea, inspired by Iraq's revamped national squad.

They had also agreed on a handful of position assignments: Rawan, Mazen, Sary and Haroon at midfield; Hisham and Laith as strikers; Marwan and both Mustafas on defense; Mohanad in goal. All told, the roster included over a dozen players.

At that Monday practice, they settled on a name after ditching "Iraqi Refugee Team" (one of the players, U.S.-born Mustafa Abdulrahman, is not a refugee) and the Lions. They would call themselves the Tigers. "We are active, energetic," Rawan explained.

They locked in colors, too: white jerseys and green shorts. And they decided that one of the fathers, Kareem Alsaadi, would coach. Out of work right now, he has time.

Forming an all-Iraqi crew carried a certain logic. They often played pickup games among themselves, so why not formalize it? Their language unified them. While their English varied from half-decent to nearly accentless, they felt most comfortable speaking in their native Arabic.

And even with part-time jobs, these boys would have lots of free time. A team would give them a safe way to burn off energy.

Oh, and it would be fun.

Rawan and Mazen turned to the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee. Since 2007 the agency has resettled 129 Iraqi refugees, 42 of them minors, in the area. Many families live at the same apartment complex off Sinclair Lane, which is where the boys met.

The boys made their pitch to Fikremariam Worku, program manager at the IRC office. He loved the idea. A team would strengthen their group identity, he felt. And while it might sound like a recipe for self-ghettoization, he believed it would expose them to kids from various backgrounds.

"I think it's 100 percent beneficial for them," he said in an interview.

But Worku was honest. He didn't know if a league could be found. Nor could he promise that the IRC would pay for uniforms given its tight finances.

Mazen's parents both work. His father is a security guard, his mother a housekeeper at the Hilton Hotel downtown. But those jobs do not pay especially well for a family of five. Mazen has two younger siblings, including 14-year-old brother Marwan, a member of the Tigers.

Like most Iraqis, Mazen grew up playing soccer on dusty streets and dirt lots. That, like life itself, became increasingly dangerous after the 2003 U.S. invasion, as Iraq convulsed with violence.

One day in 2006, four men threw Mazen into a car as he left school. Hooded, he had no idea where the abductors took him or whether he would see his family again. "I was scared," he recalled. "Maybe they would want to kill me."

What they wanted was money. His father, Issam Jamiel, owned a business selling truck parts. He sold off assets to raise the $20,000 ransom that won Mazen's release. Then the family fled to Syria for two years. Last August they finally reached Baltimore.

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