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Oumar had lived at the Grace apartments exactly one day when Daniel Smith approached him in the parking lot and asked if he wanted to play soccer. Originally from Somalia, Oumar and his family had arrived at the east Denver complex the night before, after a long trip from a refugee camp in Yemen and a one-day stop at LaGuardia to fill out immigration paperwork. Oumar was still clad in the gold suit with black pinstripes that his mother had made him wear for the journey, as well as the black dress shoes that went with the suit. He didn't understand a word that Daniel said to him, but some of the boys bouncing soccer balls alongside Daniel translated: They were going to play soccer at a nearby park, they had been doing it every Saturday for a few weeks now, there was talk of eventually putting a team together. Was Oumar interested?
Daniel, the youth-program coordinator for the African Community Center, tried to explain to Oumar that he needed to change into practice gear, then meet them at Verbena Park just down the street. "I grabbed my own shirt, my shorts, and I was trying to show him," Daniel remembers. "I was like, 'Go, get shorts, shirt, tennis shoes, just like these. Go home, come back.' Then I started walking toward the park with the kids to go play, and all of a sudden I look back down the street, and there's Oumar, walking in his suit and dress shoes right behind us. I thought he was going to come check it out and watch."
But as soon as the scrimmage started, Oumar shot out onto the field with the rest of the kids and began slide-tackling with abandon, chasing down loose balls and errant passes.
"I just thought, 'Oh, no, his mother is going to kill him. This is his one good outfit to come to America, and he's out there getting grass stains all over it.' So I made him take off the jacket and shoes, at least," Daniel says. "By the end of the practice, he was playing in just a wife-beater and some tighty whities. And it didn't even stop him. He didn't think twice about it because he was having too much fun. He's been coming out to every practice since."
So have dozens of others. What began as an informal afternoon kick-about between Daniel and a few of the boys at the center has morphed into an effort involving nearly one hundred young African refugees living in Denver, as Daniel tries to integrate these boys — and a handful of girls — into the strange new community that is now their home.
It's a learning process, one that's almost necessarily clumsy: taking young refugees with diverse languages, backgrounds and physical abilities, and trying to teach them to play in the often rigid environment of American team sports. But it's a task that Daniel has embraced. Because while he's found that the Africans he helps are grateful for every ounce of support, they're absolutely crazy about soccer, known around the world as the beautiful game.
It's the one common language they all share.
Daniel Smith speaks the language of the game pretty fluently himself. Born into a Park Hill family of Peruvian descent, Daniel split his childhood between Denver and Lima, picking up a solid set of soccer skills down south that earned him plenty of playing time with Club Denver, the Colorado Storm and the East High School varsity squad. After graduating from East, Daniel headed to the University of San Francisco, where he red-shirted his freshman year, then broke into the team his sophomore season as a left-midfielder and a defensive center-midfielder under a former U-18 (eighteen and under) national team coach.
Already fluent in Spanish, Daniel studied French and went to Toulouse his junior year to really master the language. "It was beautiful there," he remembers. "The course I took was really intense, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, nothing but French — grammar, language, history. You learn quickly in an environment like that."
So quickly that after three months, the study-abroad program let the students loose in the city to do an independent-study project of their choosing, to be conducted and completed in French. Daniel decided to focus on first-generation Africans born in France, and how they identified themselves. He went out into the community and interviewed countless Africans — in coffee shops, at social and sporting functions — and took his French to a whole new level. In his 35-page thesis, Daniel described how their experience was much like that of first-generation Mexican-Americans in the United States, where parents traditionally push for full assimilation as a means to success while the kids continue to identify with the country of their origin.
After graduating from college in 2005, Daniel stayed in San Francisco and taught language arts at an inner-city middle school. But then he started feeling the urge to get back home, and he returned to Denver last December. His mother had been volunteering at the ECDC/African Community Center, the Denver branch of the 24-year-old Ethiopian Community Development Council, which helps refugees fleeing political strife, persecution and war resettle in the U.S., and she told Daniel about an opening for a youth-program coordinator.