These Young Refugees Know All About Winning and Losing -- They Just Want to Play
Goalie NiDoh and midfielder Ne Taw play for the Niyakko Rush Soccer Club.
Like a lot of newcomers, Jason Hicks was a bit flummoxed by his first visit to the Shadow Tree apartments last year. The complex, just a short stroll off East Colfax in Aurora, is home to a growing number of refugee families, relocated from places like Nepal and Burma and Somalia. It's a population that remains largely invisible to most metro-area residents, a cluster of otherness separated from the larger community by barriers of language and culture and the thick walls of I-225, which runs like a concrete curtain right across the street.
Hicks, a 33-year-old electrician and former PE teacher, had come to Shadow Tree to check out a program he'd heard about through his church; volunteers had been scrounging bicycles for the refugee kids and showing up regularly at the apartments to repair them. Hicks thought that sounded cool. But when he first entered the Shadow Tree complex, he felt like he was crossing an international border.
See also: Meet the Players of the Niyakko Rush
Coach Jason Hicks found a soccer team in the making at Shadow Tree.
Children roamed an interior courtyard, playing and crying out to each other in a hodgepodge of tongues. A few women clad in saris or hijabs looked on from the tiers above. Weird music drifted from the doorways of the apartments, and exotic cooking smells, too; one family, Hicks soon learned, had recently been reprimanded for slaughtering a goat in their bathroom and drying the meat on the shower curtains.
Hearing an eruption of shouts and cheers, Hicks followed the sounds to the back of the complex, where he found a soccer game in progress -- a kind of soccer game, anyway. The field was a cramped, dusty square of the parking lot, baking in the July sun, where dirt had been compacted on top of asphalt. An anthill-sized mound in one corner tripped players up repeatedly, and the lot abutted a fence topped with barbed wire. The ball was a battered, sagging volleyball. Many of the players -- mostly Asian boys between ten and fifteen years of age -- wore flip-flops or went barefoot, despite shards of glass scattered in the dirt.
Yet there was no mistaking the intense concentration of the participants, the excitement and sheer joy of the game as they shuffled in the dust. Several of the players showed flashes of raw talent, although the passing was rudimentary and little actual teamwork was in evidence. Still, for all its strangeness, the scene seemed oddly familiar. It stirred something in Hicks. It reminded him of another time, another place -- what it was like to be different and have little and want nothing more than to play the best you can ever play.
Hicks knows a few things about soccer. Growing up in Southern California, he'd played the game since he was six. He was the captain of his team, the golden boy of his league -- a prospect, a recruit, a scholarship candidate. Then it had all gone away, but he'd been coaching youth teams in his spare time on and off ever since. And as he watched the mob of boys chasing the ball in the dirt, he told himself, I can do something about this. I can make it better.
Over the past fifteen months Hicks has taken that idea and run with it. He's organized the dirt-lot crew by age into two squads, a team known collectively as the Niyakko Rush, after a Burmese word for "brother." Operating with far more ingenuity than funds, he's cadged shin guards, cleats, balls and even uniforms for his players. He's persuaded a procession of soccer geeks to join his all-volunteer, grassroots effort as assistant coaches, lined up practice fields made of real grass, and even arranged a few games with more conventional teams.
Since it began, the Niyakko Rush has almost doubled in size, from seventeen players to thirty-two -- boys from half a dozen countries, speaking eight distinct languages. There are also several girls from Shadow Tree who scrimmage regularly with the boys and are awaiting the arrival of a female coach in order to form their own team.
The logistics of dealing with such a large and eager group, without any real sponsorship or the usual support network of youth soccer leagues, can be daunting. Niyakko has struggled particularly with transportation and communication challenges; just alerting players to an upcoming practice, game or other team function, much less getting them there, is a complicated business. But Hicks is convinced that soccer can be a key to bringing the kids from Shadow Tree out of the shadows and onto a path to success in their new country, breaking down walls by doing something they love. "Soccer is the universal language," he says. "My kids know all about Manchester United and Chelsea and Real Madrid. As much as they may be behind with English and math, they know soccer. We're using that as a springboard, to give them something positive in their lives."
Many of the Niyakko players come from families fractured by civil war and economic upheaval, with parents far away or working long hours to support their children. Some of them, particularly the older kids, have grim memories of dangerous border crossings and years spent in refugee camps, awaiting admission to the United States. Soccer is their touchstone, their escape, the flint that sparks their camaraderie and fires their dreams. "We started out with nothing, and now we have our own team," says Madan Mishra, a fifteen-year-old midfielder from Nepal. "We need to take it serious."
Thang Li, a fifteen-year-old forward from Burma (now officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar), says that months of training together have taught the Niyakko Rush how to put aside their differences and encourage and look out for each other. Both he and Madan have younger brothers on the team, but in a real sense the entire group is family.
"It's not only about soccer," he says. "It's about being brothers."
Dan Bruno and other volunteers conduct weekly bike fix-up sessions at the complex.
Four years before Jason Hicks wandered into the Shadow Tree courtyard, Frank Anello made a similar trip -- and came away thinking that maybe he could make a difference, too. Anello and his wife, Carolyn, had helped to sponsor a refugee family through Lutheran Family Services, but they had little idea of what hurdles the new arrivals faced until their first visit to the apartments.
"Shadow Tree was the beginning of everything for us," Anello recalls. "I pulled into the parking lot, and there were three kids playing in the dumpster. One was about two years old, sitting in a grocery cart in the parking lot with just a diaper on. I was blown away."
It soon became apparent to Anello that while a number of programs are in place to help refugees learn English, look for work and get their kids enrolled in school, the need for additional assistance -- with everything from navigating bus schedules and supermarkets to finding affordable health care and managing a checking account -- far exceeds what the government and the major resettlement agencies can supply. So the Anellos launched a nonprofit, Project Worthmore, to help provide refugees in the Denver area with essential services as well as "cultural mentorship."
"We focus on refugees from Burma," Anello says, "but we have Congolese, Somalis and Bhutanese in our English programs, too. We partner with all the resettlement agencies, but the reality is that Project Worthmore would not exist if they were actually meeting the needs of all their clients. It's not their fault; they're just completely overwhelmed."
Although federal officials tinker frequently with the number and country of origin of refugees allotted to enter the United States, Colorado receives about 2,000 a year. In the Denver area, the largest single influx in recent years has been refugees from Burma -- a total of 3,199 as of 2013, along with 2,918 Nepalese and 1,765 Somalis. Many of them find their way to Aurora, known for cheaper rents and an increasingly diverse population of immigrants; according to census data, more than 20 percent of current Aurora residents weren't born in the United States.
Fleeing tremendous hardship in their own countries, many refugees arrive deeply traumatized by what was often a prolonged and miserable journey. Anello says the average stay in refugee camps worldwide is now seventeen years; people leaving Burma can expect to languish for anywhere from ten to twenty years in a camp in Thailand before gaining entrance to the United States. Anello's group deals with many single-parent households, the absent spouse still detained or working abroad or awaiting asylum. Most have had only cursory or no medical care for years and little preparation for life in an urban environment.
"They have a three-day orientation before they leave that refugee camp," he says. "Our expectations about how fast they should become self-sufficient are a joke."
Refugees are typically expected to start paying back the cost of their airfare within the first six months of their arrival, and to pay off the total amount -- which can amount to more than $10,000, depending on the size of the family -- within three years. Rent assistance usually runs out after six months, while other services might be available for up to five years. (Resettlement agencies develop relationships with housing providers, such as Shadow Tree, that accept Section 8 clients, which is one reason refugees tend to congregate in certain apartment complexes.) But most of the jobs available to unskilled workers with limited English-language abilities, such as meatpacking jobs or shuttling rental cars at the airport, don't pay enough to address the long-term debts on top of ongoing living expenses. "We don't have farming communities, and that's how most of them made a living," Anello notes.
Project Worthmore seeks to help its clients not just with economic struggles, but also with cultural adjustments. Many of the refugees come from a tradition of strong hospitality, which makes them particularly vulnerable to door-to-door hucksters and con artists of all stripes. Since they are eager to welcome visitors to their home, Anello has had to warn them about keeping their doors locked and not volunteering information to strangers. The long hours and night shifts worked by many of the adults can also result in a lack of parental supervision, leading to issues with truancy, delinquency and other adolescent problems rarely encountered in the old country.
"It's super-important to figure out ways to keep the kids off the streets," Anello says. "They are placed in very rough areas, and teenagers are going to gravitate to their surroundings. When you come from a village where there's no school, no curfew, and you just do what you want -- that doesn't fly on East Colfax. You have to give them some kind of positive influence: sports, art, music -- whatever it might be."
Jeff Price reached pretty much the same conclusion on his first visit to Shadow Tree four years ago. Price had come with his pastor to visit a refugee family, and he was immediately struck by a row of kids' bikes lying idle in a heap. Every one had a flat tire. The bikes had been donated by church groups and nonprofits, only to find their tires quickly deflated by the abundant debris and goat-head stickers in the neighborhood. A retired entrepreneur who once operated a factory in Thailand, Price returned to Shadow Tree with a bicycle pump, tools and patches. He stood in the courtyard as kids came up to him and asked if he could fix bikes, and things quickly took off. Now he and other volunteers put on a clinic once a week, repairing bikes and showing the older kids how to do their own repairs. Price also collects winter clothing and distributes it to residents in the fall.
Although Price calls his bike program a ministry, there's no overt proselytizing during the fix-up sessions. If someone asks him why he bothers, Price is happy to explain the importance of loving your neighbor and how he's trying to learn to do that. For the most part, though, the volunteers are too busy dealing with swarms of kids, laughing and striving for attention and sometimes sneaking off with tools. Price says he can only imagine what it was like in the camps, where no basic need -- food, shelter, even physical safety -- could be taken for granted.
"They don't talk much about it," he says. "Once they get here, they feel safe. They love America because they don't face the persecution here. But some of them come here and find out it's harder than they thought."
According to Price's partner in the ministry, Dan Bruno, most of the kids pick up English quickly -- faster, in many cases, than their parents. But fluency doesn't eliminate the cultural divides in the courtyard. Some of the refugee groups welcome or at least tolerate the bike people's efforts to organize a block party or talk about their Christian faith, but others, including many Muslims, are wary. "The Somalis were more arm's-length for a long time," says Bruno. "Even as we're fixing their bikes and telling them why we're doing it, they say, 'We hate you.' There is a resistance to it. But over time we've earned the right to be there."
Hicks is a member of the small Wellspring Community Church, which shares a building in Aurora with Price and Bruno's church, Mission Under Grace. That's how he came to hear about the bike ministry, journey to Shadow Tree and have his own revelation: Bikes and warm coats were a start, but what these kids really needed was a soccer coach. And he knew just the guy.
The Niyakko Rush -- named after a Burmese word for "brothers" -- now boasts players from half a dozen countries, speaking eight languages.
Limited resources can be the spur to innovation. Madan Mishra remembers playing soccer in Nepal with a ball made of crushed plastic bottles stuffed inside a sock. Then came the years in the refugee camp, everyone living together in a small bamboo hut. The huts often caught fire; after his hut burned down, the family lived in a tent on the edge of the jungle. "They gave us bamboo to make our house again," Madan recalls, "but when we were almost finished, we came here."
Madan's younger brother, Lallit, doesn't remember much about the camps.
When Madan and Lallit arrived at Shadow Tree in 2008, their family was the first from Nepal in the apartment house; most of the established residents were from Korea or Mexico. They were surprised to discover what a big deal that was. "We were different from the others," Madan recalls. "There's a lot of bullying here. In our country, we wouldn't have it. If we did, it wasn't like here, where people commit suicide and stuff like that. We were all the same culture, same people."
Thang Li had little time for soccer back in his village. He and his brother Saw Ni were working most of the time, including a stint washing dishes. They did not have to spend time in a refugee camp, though. Theirs was a complicated, sometimes terrifying journey from Burma -- via Thailand to Malaysia -- to the United States. They were turned back at some border crossings, the family sometimes separated by authorities.
"We would hide in the jungle in the morning, then travel at night," Thang Li recalls. "At first I was pretty scared. We heard a lot about people trying to get here and dying in the boat."
Twelve-year-old Saw Ni doesn't recall many details of his family's travels, except for a couple of the tougher border crossings. "We had to take off our shoes so we don't make a sound," he says. "Then we had to run on sharp sticks."
Saw Ni's family arrived in the United States nearly three years ago. Now there are many people from Nepal and Burma and Thailand at Shadow Tree. Some, like Madan's family, eventually move to other refugee enclaves not far away. They have managed to put aside many of the differences in their own backgrounds -- Thang and Saw Ni, for example, hail from the Chin people, a much-persecuted minority in Burma -- and band together as strangers in a strange land. The members of the Niyakko Rush see their general situation improving day by day, and the soccer team itself has something to do with that.
The rapid rise of the team last fall seemed to take everyone by surprise -- including, to some extent, its creator. Improvising as he went, Hicks was able to set things in motion despite a nearly total absence of cash. A few weeks after his first visit to Shadow Tree, he learned that the Colorado Rush Soccer Club, which oversees youth soccer programs for more than 5,000 players, also donates heaps of new and used equipment to children around the world. Hicks told the team about the needy kids right around the corner and was soon filling his truck with boxes of soccer gear.
The equipment was handed out at Shadow Tree, amid much excitement, on August 28, 2013. A few days later, Hicks held the team's first practice a few blocks away, at Cottonwood Park -- a marked improvement over the dirt lot behind the apartments, where the infamous mound scarred players, and balls kicked over the fence risked being eviscerated by a nasty neighbor with a knife. Fifteen players showed up -- mostly Asians, but also some Africans and Latin Americans.
Last October, the Niyakko Rush played their first pickup game, against an assortment of players from Buckley Air Force Base and Hicks's church. That was followed by some matches arranged through the Colorado Rush, including one against a team from India. Over the winter, they participated in a league at the Colorado Clash's indoor soccer complex and came in third, losing games only to the teams that placed first and second.
"My older players could hop into any club tournament and compete," Hicks says. "But losing was hard for some of the younger ones. We had players crying. They feel like if they make a mistake, they let each other down. They take it to heart."
Madan, Thang, Lallit and Saw Ni are among the veteran players on the team, the core group that's been on board since the beginning. Not everyone has stuck around; a few hangers-on showed up to collect some of the cool stuff Hicks was handing out, but they weren't interested in making the twice-a-week practices for kids who were serious about playing. They just didn't get it, didn't understand what Coach was trying to do.
A few months ago, Hicks decided to explain to his team exactly what he was trying to do. The occasion was one of the regular get-togethers that he and his wife, Beki, put on for the group at their church, complete with hot dogs and hamburgers. After everybody had chewed their way through as much of the American dream as they could handle that evening, Hicks gathered them all for a serious talk that quickly turned into a personal confession.
"Do you guys know why I started this?" he asked. "Have your parents asked you about this?"
"No!" a chorus of voices replied.
"Did they ask you if it costs money?"
"So, when you told them it was free, what did they say?"
"So why did I start this program? I want to know what you guys think."
Saw Ni raised his hand. "I think, because we're from a different country, you want us to be with each other better and help each other," he said.
Hicks nodded. "Okay, I'm going to tell you," he said. "And after I'm done talking, we're going to get ice cream."
For the next fifteen minutes or so, the coach told his own origin story to an enraptured audience. He talked about visiting Shadow Tree that first day and seeing them playing in flip-flops, and all the memories and half-buried dreams that touched off.
"I remember being your age and wanting opportunity and not having much," he said. "I know you guys all have different stories. But we all need opportunity in life. I didn't come over on a plane. But I understand dreaming, and I understand feeling like life's not fair."
He described how, way back in 1987, three days before his sixth birthday, his father was killed by a drunk driver. Growing up in San Bernardino, young Jason was often picked on at school. He found his refuge on the soccer field, a geeky, lonely, red-haired Anglo kid surrounded by Hispanic players. Being the outsider, he said, meant he had to work harder.
His hero in those days was Alexi Lalas, the All-American and professional star from the 1990s known for his red beard, huge Afro and ferocious defense. Hicks saw himself as a young, tough clone of Lalas, an unyielding and defiant archangel of soccer.
"Sometimes life gets complicated, at school and at home," he said. "But once you get on the soccer field, nothing else matters. All you can think about is soccer."
Several of his listeners nodded in agreement. The group had fallen into a subdued silence.
His league play often pitted him against a gifted kid from the suburbs named Landon. The two were a few months apart in age and had quite a rivalry going for a while. Landon Donovan would go on to become a superstar with the LA Galaxy and the all-time top scorer in the history of Major League Soccer, widely regarded as the greatest American player of all time.
"It was like Aurora versus Highlands Ranch," Hicks explained to his wide-eyed audience. "He played right forward. I played left defense. Sometimes he beat me. Most of the time, I beat him. Then he went to high school. He had opportunities I didn't. He went to Europe every year to train with some of the best coaches in the world. By the age of sixteen, he was way better. Coaching made the big difference. Having your family there made the big difference. I didn't have that, so I want to be that for you guys."
He had come smoothly to the heart of the matter. One distinctive feature of every Niyakko Rush game is the almost complete absence of any of the players' parents cheering them on. They are too busy working, indifferent, don't have a ride to the game or, as in the case of Hicks's father, simply gone. If their parents are not always there for them, Hicks told his team, they are always welcome in his home. If they get a learner's permit, he will even take them driving.
"I'm fighting for you guys to have the opportunities," he said. "And don't be surprised if I catch you screwing up and say you can do better.... If I can teach you how to dribble and shoot and score but I can't get you guys through high school, then I failed. As much as I want to say that soccer is the most important thing in life, it shouldn't be. It should be friendship. It should be school."
Hicks passed out photos of his younger, dorkier self, dating back to his Lalas-wannabe period and beyond. The kids giggled and hooted. He fielded questions about his soccer exploits and even answered one about how long he and Miss Beki had been married -- incorrectly, it seems, judging from the guffaw that came from the vicinity of Beki Hicks.
And then, just as promised, there was ice cream.
Sporting new uniforms, the Niyakko Rush played an exhibition game against a church team on September 28 -- a victory over communication and transportation challenges.
Hicks's pep talk came at a difficult time in the history of the Niyakko Rush. On the one hand, more kids than ever were clamoring to join the group, and the practice sessions had never been sharper. But the group was also experiencing a drought of actual games that stretched on for months.
Part of the problem had to do with some mundane miscommunication about league deadlines, failure to register on time -- the sort of thing that can happen now and then in a grassroots, all-volunteer effort. The greater dilemma, though, had to do with the lack of wheels. In a confounding way, the Niyakko Rush had become a victim of its own success.
When he had only a dozen or so players to deal with, Hicks had no trouble arranging car pools with the assistant coaches or borrowing an ancient church van to ferry his team to contests. Now that there were three dozen kids interested in playing, though, the logistics had become a nightmare. Just getting the faithful to Cottonwood Park involved several trips in Hicks's truck, or jogging en masse from Shadow Tree, nine blocks away. Hicks had anticipated that he could have kids ride their rejuvenated bikes to practice, but that plan was quickly abandoned after several minor bike accidents; the coach didn't want to see any of his prospects seriously injured on the mean streets of Aurora.
Hicks was also discovering that, thanks to the team's feeble communication system, it was nearly impossible to schedule a game unless he had ample time to alert everyone. Few of the refugees had land lines, let alone smartphones. The only way to announce an upcoming match was to put the information on Facebook -- and wait for those who had Internet access to share the news with those who didn't. Even arranging a presence in a Colorado Rush four-by-four tournament last May took weeks to set up.
Hicks was deeply frustrated. But he was also proud of the kids who kept showing up week after week for practice. "We haven't played an official game in four months, but they're not quitting," he said a few weeks ago. "They see that we're trying hard, and they've been very patient."
Last month, the team's fortunes started to improve. Four of the older players tried out at Hinkley High School and made the team. Hicks regarded this as a major bit of wall-breaking, and boasted of it as if they'd all signed with the Rapids. A series of fundraising car washes and barbecues, along with some impressive donations from anonymous donors, had fortified the funds the coach was putting aside for a used-but-reliable bus or van. An online crowdfunding campaign now under way could possibly carry them the rest of the way, ending the game drought for good. In the meantime, Hicks finagled an "exhibition game" against some kids involved in a youth sports program at a local Episcopal church.
The Niyakko Rush showed up thirty strong for the match at Del Mar Park in brand-new uniforms -- orange jerseys with a dragon emblem over the heart. The color is a startling contrast to the heavy use of blue and white in youth soccer leagues, but Hicks says it's more in keeping with European tradition. He also figures that if he can get his buddies to come to the games in Broncos jerseys, people will assume that Niyakko has a fanatical following.
Their opponents, fewer than a dozen boys and girls, were wearing blue jeans and flannels and seemed slightly dazzled by the fancy uniforms. "We're gonna die," one boy muttered to another.
To level the playing field, Hicks and two Niyakko assistant coaches played for the Episcopalians, along with the group's own youth pastor; a third assistant coach served as referee. The younger Niyakko squad took the field for the first thirty-minute half, giving the opposition a considerable size advantage. But whatever they owed in stature was paid in speed. They connived, thieved and generally swarmed the ball. Sixteen minutes after the opening whistle, the Niyakko Rush was up 2-0; if not for a certain over-eagerness, leading to two goals negated by off-sides calls, it would have been even worse.
Determined to avoid a blowout, the coach-and-church squad began to press. NiDoh, the younger squad's eleven-year-old goalkeeper, fended off one surge after another, making several intrepid saves, even after getting a ball in the face. But the assault proved too intense. By the half, Niyakko was trailing 3-2.
Enter the older squad. For the first few minutes of the second half, they seemed tentative, sluggish, possibly rusty. Then the church team scored again, and it was as if someone had turned a switch. Suddenly the Niyakko crew was working together, finding a rhythm for methodical passing and feinting. Within seconds, the strikers had hammered home a revenge goal. Another soon followed.
As the second half dragged on, the game began to get more physical -- more chest-butting, more tangled legs and diving saves. Along the Niyakko sideline, the bench barked brotherly advice and encouragement and traffic directions in Nepali, Burmese, Thai. This was the first game the team had played without coaches to guide them, but it didn't seem to matter.
Neither did the score. In the waning moments, the Niyakko Rush mounted one more well-executed sweep to the goal, winning a squeaker, five to four. But amid the shouts and cries, the excitement and exhilaration of the game, the grand dispensation of playing soccer on a sunny Sunday, no one was really keeping track.
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