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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rogers soccer players found new life in Spokane before chances dwindled for immigrants

Rogers High School’s soccer team features players from all over the world. Clockwise from back left: Arzhang Mobasher (Iran), Javier Ayala-Rosales (El Salvador), Abdirisaq Jama (Somalia) and Fideli Nzohabonimana (Congo). (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Soccer is a simple game: You possess the ball, find connections, create chances and make the most of them.

Life is like that, too, even in the darkest shadows.

The soccer players at Rogers High School have known this for years, because they’ve lived it. Most of them – 19 out of 22 – were born in other lands, into poverty, tyranny or both.

Clinging to family and meager possessions, their families reached out for a better life and found it in Spokane.

Those chances are dwindling, however, thanks to tighter immigration policies ordered by President Donald Trump. The cap for refugees this year is 50,000, far fewer than the 110,000 cap set by former President Barack Obama.

Spokane is feeling the pinch, and the fear.

“It’s harder for people to come here, and many are scared to come because they think they’re going to get arrested,” said Arzhang Mobasher, an Iranian refugee whose uncle remains in a Turkish camp.

Most of the resettlement work in the United States is carried on by faith-based organizations such as World Relief. The effort is funded in part by per-refugee grants from the State Department.

Because of Trump’s cuts, World Relief recently lost about $11 million in expected federal grants, forcing it to lay off 140 resettlement workers. Its Spokane office, which welcomed about 600 refugees last year, recently cut one-fourth of its staff.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, that refugees are people we should be afraid of,” said Mark Finney, director of World Relief Spokane.

Abroad, many would-be refugees hear that the United States is becoming less tolerant.

Recently, Spokane witnessed racist fliers that portrayed Jewish caricatures and an image of Trump, sweeping out Obamacare and open borders.

It also included a message: “Refugees NOT Welcome.”

A new life in Spokane

As they warm up in practice, the Rogers players try not to dwell on geopolitics. Soccer is their only respite.

Even in Spokane, life isn’t easy. Most of the Pirates work part time to help support their families. Schoolwork comes first, followed by work and sports.

At home, the players speak Spanish, Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Persian, Nepalese and Urdu. That won’t do on the pitch, where they bark out signals in English.

Coach Valentin Dimitrov looks on proudly. Eighteen years ago, he was in their shoes. Arriving almost penniless from Bulgaria, he eventually found work as a janitor in Spokane.

Now he’s a teacher at Regal Elementary School and the coach of a bunch of overachievers. None of his players can afford to play on local clubs.

“This is about dreams, that what it is,” said Dimitrov, who led the Pirates to the District 8 3A title last year.

Recently, the team held a basketball tournament at Garry Middle School to raise money for a trip to watch the Seattle Sounders. Some players put in 20 hours at the tournament.

“These aren’t lazy kids,” Dimitrov said.

Their work began on arrival in Spokane. Most arrived with one bag of clothes but little else. World Relief and other groups provide up to $1,000 in basic furnishings, simple kitchen items, linens and household items, cleaning supplies and toiletries.

They transport refugees to a health screening and assist them with enrolling in employment services, public schools and English classes.

Initially, families are placed throughout Spokane. Most gravitate toward low-cost housing in Hillyard and East Central.

Spokane School District 81 eases the transition for many refugees and currently aids about 1,900 eligible students. The English Language Development Program employs specialists who speak more than 20 languages.

“Can you imagine having to come to a new country and learn a new language?” Heather Richardson, director of ELD, asked. “These kids are resilient and persistent. … They’re just an amazing group of kids.”

Uncertain future for refugees

No matter what happens to the rest of Trump’s travel ban, the refugee cap is here to stay.

“We’re a faith-based organization, so we do a lot of praying with people,” said Finney, who has met with representatives of senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell as well as Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers.

Meanwhile, the world refugee crisis has reached historic levels, with 65.3 million affected worldwide. According to Finney, the average wait time in a refugee camp is 17 years.

“To make it to the United States, it’s kind of like winning the lottery,” Finney said.

Now there are fewer tickets than ever.

Rogers defender Fideli Nzohabonimama was born in Tanzania after his parents fled civil war in the Congo.

Fideli’s parents work in the laundry room at the Davenport, sending what they can to help his three half-brothers who remain in a camp in Tanzania.

“They’re getting tired of waiting,” Nzohabonimama said.