Soccer club connects immigrant teens to their favorite sportby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Every Thursday afternoon, young soccer players with names like Hassan, Hussein, and Toteh straggle into St. Paul's Ober Community Center. It could be the area's most multi-national study hall.
This is phase one of the Minnesota Thunder Plus; tutoring in subjects ranging from math and english to computer literacy. Phase 2 happens a few hundred feet away on a tattered field along an I-94 service drive.
The Minnesota Thunder Plus has been around since 2002. It still carries the name of its former sponsor, even though the professional team dissolved last year.
The Thunder Plus is made up almost exclusively of immigrant kids from mainly African countries, along with some Mexicans and Central Americans. Watching a practice is like seeing a Benetton ad shot between two soccer goals.
14-year-old Jacob Toteh from Liberia spells out the Thunder Plus mantra.
"Everybody from a different ethnic background, but we come together as one when we play soccer," he said.
What these players share is a compulsion to play soccer. Not baseball, basketball, football, golf or swimming--soccer.
Minnesota Thunder Plus executive director Jean Paul Biggirindavyi played professional soccer in his native Berundi. Biggirindavyi doesn't think Americans understand how much soccer used to permeate the lives of these teens.
"For these kids, before they get here, their main activity, Monday through Sunday, is soccer," he said.
In the U.S., says Biggirindavyi, their soccer opportunities evaporate. With minimal language skills and little or no money, they become walled off from the rest of the community.
Many of these teens find refuge and trouble on the street. Minnesota Thunder Plus coach Farah Osman, from Somalia, is pretty sure soccer could save a lot of them.
"Most of the kids that are involved in those bad places and the wrong blocks, are the kids who are not playing the sport," he said.
"We are like family, so everybody treates you like a brother," said 15-year-old Somali native Abdirahman Hassan, a four-year veteran with the Minnesota Thunder Plus.
"So if you come here, at least you have a family, instead of gang bangers as a family. So this is a family," he said.
"I'm from Africa, Liberia."
For Jacob Toteh, the soccer component of the Minnesota Thunder Plus is actually secondary to the educational help.
"And you get something that you love to play, for getting your schoolwork in, I mean that's just a bonus for me," he said.
Soccer isn't cheap. When you add up all the costs, from the field rentals and referee fees to the balls and uniforms, it can be well over a thousand dollars a year per player.
The Minnesota Thunder Plus covers those costs with local foundation grants. But the money isn't guaranteed.
The bigger problem is finding playing space.
Thunder Plus executive director Jean Paul Biggirindavyi had to go outside St. Paul at the last minute to reserve home fields for this summer. He says league coordinators and city officials talk a lot about how important soccer for immigrant youth is.
"But there is not a genuine desire to serve our kids," he said. "You know I always feel when I'm asking them to access the fields it's almost like we are a burden."
Over at St. Paul Parks and Rec., Brad Meyer says the city is obligated to meet the facility needs of kids in its own programs and public school leagues first. Meyer can understand Biggirindavyi's frustration.
"But when we have limited resources and limited field availability and increasing demand within our own parks and recreation department, as well as our community agencies, it's a tough problem to juggle," he said.
Maybe the greatest need is for more local soccer clubs for young immigrants. Biggirindavyi knows of just three: the Minnesota Thunder Plus, a new Somali team in Minneapolis, and a Hmong club in St. Paul. He says if money were no object...
"We could easily put together two dozen teams, like that!" he said.
Immediately, two dozen teams, without even having to advertise. According to Bigginrindavyi something like that could transform the Twin Cities African immigrant community and put a real dent in its crime problem.
- Morning Edition, 05/11/2010, 7:35 a.m.