New soccer program helps refugee, immigrant children adjust to Albany

Soccer is the force behind a new effort to help refugee and immigrant children adjust to life in the Capital Region.

[anvplayer video=”5133225″ station=”998132″]

Most of the handful of kids at a new program in Albany have only been in the U.S. for a year, some longer. They’re getting language and learning help from local organizations, but the program is one fun way outside of that, where they can adjust to their new environment.   

When the children step onto the field at Bleecker Stadium in Albany, they have already pushed through a particularly tough trial, explained Rifat Filkins, the Community Development Director at the Capital District YMCA.

“Many of these refugee children don’t have means of transportation,” said Filkins.

Each week for the last several weeks since the program began, the Refugee Welcome Center has escorted them from their neighborhood nearby to the practice.

“Most of the kids who are here right now, you can see they are from Afghanistan and some of them are from Sudan. Most of the Sudani kids here are immigrants and Afghani kids are refugees,” said Filkins.

She explained that some of the children have been in the U.S. for several years, while many of the Afghan refugees are experiencing their first full summer here.

Each Saturday and Sunday this summer and fall, the players are returning to one thing that remains consistent for them in their new home, despite Americans calling the sport “soccer” instead of “football.”

“Most of all, I think our goal is for kids to have fun,” said Filkins. “We want to make sure that the kids have a safe place that they can just be kids and have some good times and just be off of the street and be engaged in activities which help them to have discipline in their life.”

The YMCA is joining with the West Hill Refugee Welcome Center to offer more than just coaching on the field.

“It’s really important that they can get somewhere and it can be a space that’s safe and a space that’s fun,” said Kasey Jacob, Program Coordinator at the Refugee Welcome Center.

“A lot of the participants in our program are single mothers, so finding the time to work and provide for their kids while also providing care for them.”

“So kids have all kinds of mental health issues, they have learning disabilities, they have behavior issues, so for coaches it’s way more than just being there and being a soccer coach,” explained Filkins.

Many of them are facing struggles adjusting to life in Albany.

“The trauma that they went through, losing one parent, family member or traveling in a very chaotic situation, and then coming to a new country and not having enough language and other barriers,” she said.

[anvplayer video=”5133229″ station=”998132″]

On the field, they are surrounded by adults who have navigated the same struggles. Coaches Abdulazim Mohamed and Nazar Elamin are trying to help them get a steady footing.

“We try to take all the kids out of the street or boring inside the house, their houses, to have something that is going to be positive and something where they’re going to learn something new,” Mohamed said, explaining his hope that the sport opens doors for some of the players with scholarships one day.

The YMCA is hoping to expand the program to reach more refugee and immigrant children.

If you are interested in donating cleats or equipment, you can contact the YMCA or learn more about how to connect during the upcoming Welcoming Week.

To learn more about the Refugee Welcome Center, click here.