Community Pitch

For African refugees, soccer is more than just a game.

"The job was mostly working with kids who were newcomers to the country, predominantly from Africa," Daniel explains. "I had a really strong basis with youth in America in the public school system and had done my thesis on Africans coming to new places, so it just seemed like a really good fit."

Displaced people around the world apply for official refugee status with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). Once that status is granted, the refugees wait for repatriation to their homeland, wait to be invited to stay in the country where they currently reside, or wait to be invited to apply for resettlement in a third country. If they're invited to apply to relocate in the U.S., they undergo an intense security screening in which their names are run through fifteen databases to make sure they are not terrorists. After that, the UNHCR contacts one of nine U.S. Department of State-sanctioned agencies that help refugees in this country, which will study each case and decide which branch of the agency would be best to go through. If a refugee has friends or family in a certain state, for example, an agency will try to relocate him there. But for the most part, the process is random, and many refugees who land in Denver have never heard of the place.

Of the nine sanctioned agencies, the ECDC is the only one that is ethnic-community-based (the others are faith-based), and the only one started by refugees, in Virginia in 1973. It opened its Denver office — in a small building off Colfax Avenue — in 2001. The state department provides for the first thirty days of a refugee's stay here — typically paying for the deposit on an apartment and the first month's rent on that apartment, which is often in the Grace complex — and some food. After that, the resettlement agency takes over.

Fancy footwork: Espoire (left) juggles the ball while Benjamin looks on; Benjamin’s father (right), Jonathan Nduwayo Sarukundo, is happy his sons have a chance to play the game.
Mark Manger
Fancy footwork: Espoire (left) juggles the ball while Benjamin looks on; Benjamin’s father (right), Jonathan Nduwayo Sarukundo, is happy his sons have a chance to play the game.

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"It's a public/private relationship," explains Jennifer Kroeck Gueddiche, director of the ECDC/African Community Center in Denver. "We are contracted by the government, but it's on us to find funding to help these people."

The center uses grants and donations to provide everything from furniture to clothing to toothbrushes for the 1,082 refugees it's helped resettle here. Its employees are the first faces the refugees see when they arrive at the airport, and those employees take the refugees to their new home in their new, adopted city. So above all, the people working at the African Community Center must be welcoming. Daniel certainly qualified.

"I got a really good sense from him immediately," Gueddiche says. "Just the spirit that he has in him, I knew he would be perfect for the job."

In the four months he's been on the job, Daniel has done everything from helping young students register at a new school or sign up for the GED to advising new arrivals on how to set up a bank account. One day he's hosting "newcomer classes" on the rules governing alcohol and tobacco use in this country, the next he's organizing outlines of bus routes. "Helping these people resettle is different for every family," Daniel notes. "Some people come from remote villages in the middle of nowhere, others come from huge cities. Some people are looking for an immediate community, and some people don't want any support or help — they just want to be left alone. We have lawyers and doctors and teachers, and we have people who can't even read or write in their own language. Each case is extremely unique and totally different. You have to take it case by case."

The job has exposed Daniel to a world that he didn't know existed in Denver, the city where he was born and thought he knew so well. He can only imagine what would happen if he were suddenly removed from his country and dropped in a strange city, what kind of help he would need. That's what he tries to provide here. "I would expect that someone would want to do that for me if I was in a similar situation," he says.

Daniel noticed that while there were a lot of activities for refugee kids — trips to the zoo and museums, for example — there weren't many social programs that would get them out and interacting with people who were not like them. So one of his first moves was to set up an after-school program with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance School, so that the ACC kids could go to the studio for what Daniel calls "relationship-building," roundtable discussions between white kids, Latino kids, African-American kids and African kids, followed by music-making, dancing and goofing around. The kids loved it.

Daniel started looking around for a new project. "The more I started going into the community and seeing what these kids were up to, the more I kept seeing them playing soccer," he remembers. "Most of these kids come out of refugee camps. They say, 'I'm from Somalia, I'm from Sudan,' because that's where their parents were from — but most of these kids were brought up in actual camps elsewhere, where they had absolutely nothing. A lot of them weren't even in schools. And for many of them, all they did all day, every day, was play soccer. So I realized that they have this really profound passion for the game. You see a lot of Americans who love to play soccer, but it's not everything to them. They have basketball, too, they play baseball in the summer, go to camp, whatever. But these kids, that's it, man. This is what they love to do, and they know this is what they love to do. You go to their house and they're on the PlayStation playing soccer, their little brothers are running around the living room, jumping on the couches doing goal celebrations, they know all the players.

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