An Off-field Assist

Coach, Vietnamese Immigrant Help Youths In Refugee Soccer League

July 16, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

Mazen Abdulwahab chose No. 6. His brother picked No. 3. Another boy went with No. 9.

By next week, those numbers and the boys' first names will adorn jerseys now being produced for the Tigers, the fledgling soccer squad these young Iraqi refugees have formed in Northeast Baltimore.

And a week from Saturday, the Tigers will meet up with three other well-outfitted refugee teams, thanks to Peter and Allison Tran, owners of the EmbroidMe apparel shop in Fullerton. They offered to provide 60 sets of specially ordered shorts and jerseys for $1,300 rather than the $4,000 they'd normally charge.

For Peter Tran, taking a loss on uniforms for the teenagers from Iraq, Burma (also called Myanmar), Nepal and the former Soviet Union is a kind of repayment. In 1975, he and his family fled Vietnam as "boat people" and reached the United States.

"It's great to help out the refugees," said Tran, 39, who read about the Iraqi boys in The Baltimore Sun. "Our family was greatly assisted when we came over."

Weeks ago, the idea of fielding a team in uniform was a sort of fantasy tossed around by the soccer-mad Iraqis. Not only has their initiative quickly led to creation of an informal refugee league with four nascent teams, but their story has inspired strangers to pitch in with a variety of gear.

The July 25 kickoff tournament, meanwhile, has evolved into a festive celebration. Dubbed the 2009 Peace Cup, the event at Herring Run Park will feature traditional food, music and dance of these cultures.

Regional Management, which operates the apartment complex where many refugees live, will serve free breakfast for the youths. The Mayor's Office of International and Immigrant Affairs is reserving the field for the event from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Parkside Avenue and Sinclair Lane. (The office is also working to set up games between the youths and Hispanic students.)

Tuesday afternoon, Stevenson University soccer coach John Plevyak and two of his players dropped off eight soccer balls, some nets and another batch of uniforms at the Highlandtown office of the International Rescue Committee. The IRC resettles refugees and set up the league after its staff could not find an existing league for them.

Reading about the Iraqi boys, Plevyak found Mazen's travails particularly moving. When he was 13, Mazen was abducted by militants in Baghdad and held captive for two weeks while his family cobbled together a ransom.

The family fled to Syria, where they stayed for two years, and arrived in the U.S. last August. Then in February, five of Mazen's Patterson High School classmates jumped him, breaking his nose and landing him in the hospital.

"Somebody has to help show that boy and his friends that this is a better place, a better country," Plevyak said. "Let's see if we can help him out."

This fall Plevyak intends to invite the teens to the Stevenson campus to meet the players, watch a game from the sidelines and, ideally, develop a relationship.

The IRC says the 20 Stevenson Mustangs uniforms, many brand-new, could outfit a fifth team or handle an expansion in the four teams' rosters.

Plevyak thought his squad's green-and-white gear would be a good fit since the Iraqi boys made those their colors. Then Tran offered to provide new uniforms with iron-on vinyl lettering for every team at a discount, including free shipping.

The IRC fronted the $1,300 and hopes to offset that with donations, said its development director, Erica DelViscio. After the tournament, it will be up to the teens to decide how often they play games.

Mazen seemed taken aback after hearing about the strangers' generosity. "I feel like life is good for me," he said. "I'm surprised. I wasn't thinking it would be like that."

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