United by Soccer, Kids From 32 Countries Fight for a Field
OAKLAND, Calif. — The soccer players at Oakland International High School speak 33 languages and come from 32 different countries and, though the beautiful game unites them, they can’t play it the way other kids do because their school lacks a key facility: a pitch.
The students, who are #refugees, asylees and recent immigrants from far-flung places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria, have grown fed up with the skinned knees and missed practices that come with playing on asphalt. So they’ve banded together in an online, grassroots campaign to petition the Oakland School Board to help them build a proper place to play.
With the help of Ben Gucciardi, who leads their Soccer Without Borders program, and Principal Carmelita Reyes, the students formed a leadership committee, built a website, and started the Change.org petition.
The resulting, student-led movement for a field is characterized by cooperation across continents and around language barriers. Yasser, a 17-year-old student from Yemen, built the site through Wix, a cloud-based development platform, complete with testimonials and photography. He and Solomon, 17, of Liberia, shot and edited a video for it, below, which they posted to YouTube. In an email, Yasser said he stopped playing on the soccer team when he “got hurt badly on the cement,” which is what inspired him to help his fellow students in their quest for a field of their own.
With over 2,000 signatures, the OIHS petition got the attention of the school board, whose members have been meeting individually with the students, many of whom come from places where this kind of civic engagement would be far-fetched, if not impossible.
But, even with the cooperation of school officials, the request is a complicated one. The cramped stretch of concrete reserved for soccer is surrounded by a chain link fence separating it from a state-of-the-art baseball field that OIHS soccer players are not welcome to use. It’s part of Oakland Technical High School, another public school nearby, and soccer cleats tear up the grass, which is expensive to repair.
A group of enterprising Oakland Tech parents began to raise the money to build what’s now Rickey Henderson Field in 2005, when it was just an empty lot at an abandoned middle school. The school district, then under state administration, agreed to let them build the field with the money they’d raised, which they continue to maintain. But, in 2007, OIHS opened as a public school for Oakland’s immigrant community — that relegates the 100 or so students who play together as part of Soccer Without Borders to the concrete lot.
To try to unravel this mess, the students and their parents will meet with stakeholders from Oakland Tech and school board members on Tuesday, in an effort to forge a way forward that will benefit both teams, schools and the larger community. Oakland International students are asking the school board to build a solution that will work for all students — that could involve simply putting turf over the small lot they now have or, additionally, building a retractable fence to make part of the baseball field multi-use.
That has raised eyebrows among baseball boosters and, with so much invested on all sides and limited resources, there is tension at play. The baseball coach recently told a local reporter the students were “opportunistic” for wanting to “stake a claim” to the Oakland Tech field, and other reports have largely focused on the conflict.
But conflict is not what defines OIHS players, though many have and continue to overcome great hardship. Ravis, a 16-year-old from Congo who resettled in the U.S. three years ago, talked about the bonds he has formed playing the game. “It’s making me feel like a family here,” he said. “One thing that we all have in common is we love each other.”
A group of young women from the team and places like Burma, Nepal, Somalia and Eritrea agreed that playing soccer together helps them learn English, other languages and make friends. “When I first arrived in United States, I didn’t have any friends. And also I didn’t speak English,” Gaby, an 18-year-old from Guatemala, said before ending the day holding her own at midfield with the boys’ teams. Like Ravis, the girls remarked that they liked the way playing at Oakland International brought people from different religions, countries and cultures together; that they were “like a family.”
But, when it comes to competing interests and space limitations, love and determination may not be enough. The Oakland Tech community, understandably, has its own petition underway to keep the baseball field in its “current configuration.” Jody London, the school board member for the district stresses that there is no easy answer. “I’m very interested in making sure that we have space for everything — but i don’t know if the site at Oakland International can accommodate everything people want it to be,” she said in an interview.
Though a solution is not clear, the students play on. When asked why he wanted to help encourage the school board to build a pitch, Solomon, the student from Liberia, replied in an email:
I myself used to be on the soccer team and know how difficult it is to play without a soccer field. We move around a lot. We sometimes play on concrete, which has injured a lot of our players including myself. Because of the lack of field, we sometimes go around trying to find a field to play on and by the time we get it, there will be about only 30 minutes left to play. This is very discouraging and it feels very bad. Almost like we’re homeless. Furthermore, I know how much soccer means to my fellow mates because from where we come from, soccer is everything. Also, it helps our students connect with each other and prevents conflicts. Given that most of us have only been here for 3 years or less, it’s hard to communicate at first. However, soccer creates a new and easier language for all of us to communicate with.
As for the ultimate outcome, there remain months of bargaining to be done, bureaucracy to be navigated and concessions to be made — on all sides. But Graciela, a 17-year-old from Mexico who’s been in the U.S. for five years, says Oakland International students have a plan.
“Our strategy, it’s to just stay calm and don’t really listen to their negative words,” she said in an interview. “It’s gonna be hard,” but the pressure of advocating for herself and her teammates hasn’t rattled her. “I think we’re gonna get our soccer field.”