Young refugees from Eritrea, Ukraine, Sudan and other countries squared off in a friendly competition against the U.S. women’s Armed Forces soccer team Friday as part of Thrive International’s first youth refugee soccer camp.
About 60 teens from countries that also included Congo and Tanzania competed in the friendly 3-on-3 at North Central High School.
“Soccer is the perfect thing, because it brings all these cultures together,” said Marshall McLean, a spokesman for Thrive International. “It’s about building communities and bringing these kids together who share these experiences.”
The goal of Thrive’s youth programs is to focus on long-term “empowerment” that extends beyond the immediate needs of housing, education and finance, said Shannon Price, the organization’s youth program coordinator.
“We want to empower them to find their space and grow into their own lives,” Price said. “A lot of them are really of two worlds. Often times, (refugee) youth are caught in the middle of ‘Who do I want to be? What do my parents want me to be?’ ”
The soccer camp gives them the chance to connect with other youth from similar backgrounds and share their experience, especially in a sport that is so internationally beloved, she said.
“Soccer is a sport for me to connect to my culture,” said Mwajuma Ishibaleka, a 15-year-old Lewis and Clark student. The sport is simple and easy enough for most people to play, Mwajuma said.
Her brother, Joseph Ishibaleka, a 13-year-old at Shaw Middle School, was with her at the soccer camp. Both of their parents encourage them to play the sport, especially their father, who played on a provincial team in Congo, where they are originally from, they said.
The soccer camp attendees also received a complimentary soccer ball from eco-friendly Australian soccer ball maker PARK and a jersey from the Colorado Rapids.
The friendly competition came about when multiple organizations got together earlier in the week, seemingly on a whim. The U.S. Women’s Armed Forces Soccer was already in Spokane while training for an upcoming international soccer tournament for women in the military, when they were asked if they wanted to play with Thrive’s youth refugee group.
The women’s team comprises officers and enlisted personnel from all branches of the U.S. military. They will compete in the international Conseil International Du Sport Militaire, hosted by Fairchild Air Force Base this year, at the Mead School District’s Union Stadium, July 11-21.
Price said she hopes to continue to bring national teams to the soccer camp, which is expected to be an annual event. Thrive International’s youth soccer camp is a continuation of the World Relief soccer camp.
“I feel incredibly privileged in making this happen,” said Price, who also spends her time as a political science student Whitworth University.
College students are usually afraid of what comes next, she said, but not her. Like the refugee youth, she has also found her place through Thrive International.
“I didn’t think I would speak Swahili in Spokane,” she said. “Right here at home, there is so much diversity, and it’s so fun to be a part of.”
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