Community Pitch

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

On the night of August 13, a Hutu rebel group worked its way across a marsh from Congo into Burundi. Some rebels wore military uniforms, others civilian clothing; there were grown men as well as child soldiers, and as they marched they sang religious songs. At first, many of the refugees thought they were bandits coming to steal the camp's cattle, but as they started setting fire to tents, their intent became clear. Although repatriated Burundis were housed in the same camp, the rebels only went after the Banyamulenge. They burned, slashed and shot their way through, killing more than 150 of the Congo-born Tutsis and injuring another hundred. Benjamin lost two fingers in the blaze. A cousin, who was later relocated to Denver, was burned so badly that she will soon undergo two months of surgery in Salt Lake City to even out the length of her legs. But the family survived, unlike many in the camp.

They were transported to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, where they lived under the protection of the UNHCR. Benjamin and his brothers were able to continue their education there, and Benjamin even managed to work his way onto a soccer team. But after two years, the family was granted admission to the United States as political refugees and assigned to the ECDC in Denver. "Because all these big events were happening and my specific tribe and ethnic group was so targeted, we were accepted," Jonathan says. "Pretty much everyone in the tribe who survived was accepted."

The acceptance didn't stop there. "Before we arrived in the United States, we were afraid that we were going to be really isolated and by ourselves, just a family that takes care of itself," Jonathan explains. "But from the moment we have arrived here, we have been treated so well. We have gained many friends, and people have been so generous. We have only been here three months, but it feels like we have been here for three years."

Out of Africa: Head coach Daniel Smith (left) has overseen the team's growth from informal kick-abouts to a partnership with Hugh Evans (right) and the Colorado Clash.
Mark Manger
Out of Africa: Head coach Daniel Smith (left) has overseen the team's growth from informal kick-abouts to a partnership with Hugh Evans (right) and the Colorado Clash.
Here's the pitch: The team prepares for a scrimmage outside Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
Mark Manger
Here's the pitch: The team prepares for a scrimmage outside Dick's Sporting Goods Park.


To see a slide show, click here

Jonathan is thankful for the assistance he's received to pay the rent. He is thankful for the food and medical treatment they've been given. He is thankful for the school bus that stops just two blocks from the apartment to take his four sons to school. He's thankful for Daniel, who has become "like a member of my family." Now he'd like to be thankful for a job. He wants to continue working as an educator, but he knows he'll first need to work on his English. His children will need to study, too, but in the meantime, they have soccer.

"Education comes first," Jonathan says. "But it's great that Benjamin has the opportunity to play on this team. Sports are something that are going to be able to help him out. Being able to go out with other kids is something that will be very beneficial to him, as a way of socializing and meeting new people, growing. It will help him to acclimate here in Colorado as we continue to move forward in our lives."

Daniel rarely leaves the Grace apartments without eating at least two meals. He spends so much time there, helping the African residents with favors both big and small, that everyone is eager to repay him — and payment usually comes in the form of mammoth meals, great trays of pasta and lamb and potatoes. Daniel will obligingly scoop up the food with his hands to eat, then wash everything down with impossibly sweetened juice.

But today there is no time to waste, so Daniel ignores all the invitations to come into the apartments and dine. He ignores the pleas of the young girls to play marbles with them on the floor. Today is game day for the boys from the African Community Center.

Through the Colorado Clash, Daniel has arranged for a group of his U-14 Africans to play a scrimmage against another U-14 Clash team, a Spanish-speaking squad from Commerce City. In the parking lot between the two Grace apartment buildings, Daniel picks out the players for the game today, patiently explaining to the younger boys that there is not enough room for them in the few cars that will be heading to the field. The kids are upset to learn not only that they'll they miss the game, but that there will be no practice because of it. But Daniel settles the unrest by announcing that practices will now take place on Mondays and Wednesdays, too.

Players are quickly assigned to cars: these five with Daniel; these five with Frederick Agyeman-Duah, the University of Denver graduate school student from Ghana whom Daniel has taken on as a coach; these five with Yoal, one of Daniel's co-workers at the center. A handful of parents get into cars as well, and the African caravan makes its way north to the pristine fields surrounding the immaculate Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City.

The boys are awed by the sight of the stadium where the Rapids will play that night — and the dozen teams already playing on the fields are just as awed by the sight of the African players. But once they hit the field, the ACC boys focus on their own game. They have to. The Mexican players, all in green, are warming up on the opposite side, and they look good: Shots from twenty yards out curl smoothly into the side netting of the goal; a big kid with a mustache rips a volley off the cross-bar with a loud, metallic bang that ricochets across the fields. Hugh Evans and Marc Francis greet Daniel, giving him a friendly hello and a clipboard. Then they're off: Evans giddily snaps photographs of the play while Francis oversees six games at once with the hawk-like glare common to all good coaches. After a few warm-up drills and a quick determination of the starting lineup, the members of the African team don yellow jerseys and take to the pitch.

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