Soccer unites refugee and immigrant kids

Written by Elizabeth Aguilera
EL CAJON–YALLA’s Peace Builders Soccer League practice and then tutoring session – located in the heart of the largest refugee resettlement city in the world. The PBSL brings child survivors of war and immigrant youth from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America to play together, become teammates and to build community. Soccer coach Mark Kabban directs the boys in their practice at Wells Park.| — John Gastaldo * U-T San Diego
EL CAJON — Akuar. Robel. Jose. Ara. Lei.

Kenya. Iraq. Mexico. Turkey. Burma.

Common language: soccer.

El Cajon’s Wells Park welcomes the boys twice a week for drills, scrimmages and small team coaching. Across the grass field, chatter is heard not just in English but also in Arabic, Spanish, Urdu and a mosaic of other languages.

The youngsters are members of the nonprofit YALLA San Diego, a soccer program founded specifically for refugee and immigrant children. It also is the first program in the state to use soccer as a way to help child survivors of war, political uprisings, famine, poverty, violence and other global challenges integrate into their new country and rebuild their lives. YALLA pairs soccer with educational tutoring, eco-therapy and leadership training.

“The kids come here with a lot of trauma, and soccer is something they love,” said founder Mark Kabban, 25, who has built a crew of committed volunteers. “I take the lessons that I learned in my life and use sports to motivate them and get them focused on school.”

Kabban’s family moved to the United States from Lebanon during that country’s civil war. He was born in Connecticut, but shortly afterward the war ended and his family returned to Lebanon. When Kabban was in fourth grade, the household came back to the U.S. and settled in San Diego.

“I went through it, I know what it takes to succeed. When I see the kids, I see me,” said Kabban, who went to college on a football scholarship.

YALLA, which stands for Youth Leaders Living Actively, has received international attention. Various organizations have spotlighted Kabban as a young leader and person to watch.

But the program’s growth has not been without challenges. Those include finding the right place to play, covering equipment needs for children whose families cannot afford shin guards or pay fees, constantly raising funds and garnering support in a city with past tensions between long-time residents and immigrant newcomers.

While El Cajon has been home to a small Iraqi community since the 1970s, the population has boomed with an influx of almost 30,000 refugees since 2006, when the U.S. government allowed resettlement from Iraq. Today, Iraqi Americans account for nearly a third of the city’s population, said Noori Barka, president of the company Cal Biotech and president of the nonprofit Chaldean American Institute.

Census data does not clearly reflect the demographics.

While U.S. Census Bureau data show that El Cajon’s population is 56.8 percent non-Hispanic white, the figure includes Iraqis because they typically mark “white” on census forms. This classification goes back to 1944, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Arabians should be categorized as white.

El Cajon also is home to Hispanics, who make up 28 percent of the population, blacks (6.3 percent) and Asians (3.6 percent).

Amid that diversity, Barka said, YALLA “is a program that helps people get adapted, get involved, do something that they can be proud of. This is a free country and you can expect that kids can go to the wrong side, so we are proud of getting them in sports and education.”

The teams practice twice a week, followed by an hour of tutoring inside the East County Boys & Girls Club. Teenage soccer players help mentor the younger ones.

“I like the program because all of the players are from all over the world — Somalia, Iraq, Mexico — and we all play together,” said Ara Nishan, 17, who is from Turkey and serves as captain of the Under 19 team. “We can communicate with soccer.”

His teammate Rivon Eliya, 18, of Iraq, echoed his sentiments and added one other thought: “The most different here is you can walk without getting kidnapped and we can play soccer without worry.”

Lei Htoo, 10, sat on the sidelines Thursday, benched by a shin injury from a bike accident. Htoo said he is Karen, an ethnic group that lives mainly in southern Burma.

“It’s good for me because I have a lot of friends here,” said Lei, who arrived in the U.S. when he was 6. “And we get to do tricks, shoot goals, it’s fun.”

Raneen Salim, 10, was the only girl on the field Thursday. She often comes to practice when her sister cannot, along with their brother Rivin, 7. Their mother takes classes at a local college and their father works. The Salim family arrived in San Diego four years ago from Iraq.

For Rivin, who talked while doing back kicks, the team represents fun.

“I want to be big so I can learn how to play soccer even better,” he said. “And do more tricks.” • (619) 293-1717 • Twitter @utsdaguilera