By Robert J. Brodey
He’s tall, lean, and barefoot, and he’s coming at me with a quiet but determined vengeance. The soccer ball at his toe appears to be attached by a rubber band so that every time I try to wrestle the ball from him, it snaps back, and I’m left with a mouth full of dirt and a chest ready to explode from the effort.
Our pickup game of soccer is part of a summer ritual that takes place in downtown Toronto in the shadow of the Costi Reception Centre, a temporary residence for government assisted refugees newly arrived to Canada.
The field is a patch of uneven grass that resembles the unpolished turf most of the world plays on. Soccer, arguably, is the world’s most popular sport — from Brazil to Bulgaria, Senegal to South Korea.
Part of soccer’s global appeal likely has to do with its accessibility. After all, a ball is the only required gear, which is sometimes an official #5 league ball and other times made from any available materials, including yarn, tape, and elastic bands.
The players at our weekly pickup game are a mix of Canadians and newcomers, some of whom have only just arrived. Children and adults from the settlement centre regularly come out to watch, and, invariably, they are invited to play.
Some of the refugees from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America look shell-shocked, having been transplanted from whatever adverse circumstances they were escaping and are still trying to figure out which way is up in their adopted home. Often shy and without the English language, they timidly accept an invitation to play.
When they walk onto the field, however, they are no longer choked up by language or cultural barriers. They do, in fact, undergo a most magnificent transformation and play with confidence and sure footedness.
I approach the bare-footed soccer wonder and rattle something to him in Spanish, assuming wrongfully that he’s one of the new Latin American players. He shakes his head. “English, please.” He introduces himself then hesitantly tells me where he is from — Iraq.
Toronto has always been a kind of social barometer for global political events. Within weeks or months of an international crisis, hundreds and even thousands of frightened newcomers fill Canadian refugee centers – from Guatemala, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan.
Some of the refugees that show up at the soccer field each week carry with them terrible memories. While they play, however, they can forget about the trauma and uncertainty and go to a place that is as certain as their ability to kick the ball expertly between the make-shift goal posts.
This game may, in fact, constitute the first meaningful contact some newcomers have with Canadian society.
Abdu, a native of Eritrea, escaped the war in his country and went first to Sudan and then Sweden, seeking political asylum. “The only country that accepted to protect me was Canada,” he explains. When Abdu arrived in Toronto, he stayed at the Costi Reception Centre. “I felt lonely and was worried if Canada was going to feel like home. At Costi, I saw the field and people playing soccer. So I joined in.”
Michael Cassidy, a social services coordinator, calls the pickup match “community convergence.” His sister, Kate Cassidy, actually helped organize the first game six years ago as a way to release some steam after a hard day’s work.
The game has since become much more than a form of exercise. “Friendship, community, and the opportunity to get to know people,” explains Aldo, who came to play soon after arriving from Mexico with his mother and brother three summers ago.
His metamorphosis along with that of his brother has been profound. No longer shy kids struggling to express themselves, Aldo and his brother now speak English, and when they come out to play soccer, they still dance around the ball and make most of us look pretty foolish.
“It’s cool playing with people from around the world,” says Noël Nanton, a DJ and graphic designer. “Soccer is their game. In Canada, it’s always Hockey. Hockey. Hockey. So it’s great to see people come out in sandals and school us.”
“In Somalia, as soon as you start walking they throw you a soccer ball,” confirms Mukhtar, a Somalian-born Canadian, who arrived in Alberta from Egypt with his family in 1984. “From Cairo to Edmonton. That was culture shock,” he says with a laugh, before adding, “I mean that in a nice way.”
One of the most poignant moments on the soccer pitch came several summers ago when two young men from the Costi settlement centre came out to play. One wore a pair of beat up work boots, while the other was barefoot. The player with the boots gave his friend a boot, and they spent the rest of the game running up and down the field with one boot and one bare foot.
According to artist, Sanjai Bhana, who came to Canada when he was 11 months old, “There is a kind of elitism in our day to day living, but when we come out here, it’s an even playing field. There are many different skill levels on the field…but everyone is encouraging, and we’re always driven to do our best.”
This egalitarian spirit cuts through all lines, including gender, race, religion, age, political values, and, of course, language.
“This is an international game, man,” says Mukhtar, with a sense of pride. “Out here you hear five languages at any one time.”
Most striking is that this weekly soccer match has evolved organically. This isn’t some experiment created by the Federal government to integrate newly arrived immigrants into Canadian society. It has developed from the ground up, literally, and it seems to satisfy a need for all of us to play a game we adore and connect with a larger community.
In the case of Beverly Wooding, who came from Trinidad when she was 9 years old, she feels a kind of kinship with more recent immigrants to Canada and, as she puts it, shares the same fear of losing her native culture.
With a world so often defined by adversity and struggle, perhaps this pickup game is proof that diversity and harmony can be one and the same and that what happens on the soccer pitch can be held up to the city and the rest of world as an example.
Thirty-one year old Addis, a refugee from Ethiopia, for instance, had a difficult time before arriving in Canada. He describes the political situation in the capital city of Addis Ababa as volatile. “In Ethiopia, if you are a young person, you are suspected of supporting the political opposition.”
He made the journey alone to Sudan and then the United States but did not find it very welcoming. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “the attitude [in the US] changed,” says Addis. “It became too difficult to make a life there…I came to Canada because there is more community.”
Our regular “convergence” seems as significant for those whose families have been here for generations as it is for the more recent arrivals. For some newcomers, they have, perhaps, found a slice of home, or even a little piece of the Canadian dream — in the dirt and grass of this makeshift soccer field.
It’s difficult to imagine how one soccer ball can bring about peace and change. But all social revolutions start somewhere.
For Abdu, the people he has met here are now friends that extend well beyond the soccer field. “They inspired me to learn about the city,” he says. “They gave me ideas of what I can do. Now I have my own apartment. I speak English. I didn’t learn this in a classroom but from coming here. I feel very fortunate.”
With fall approaching, it’s hard not to lament the end of our summer soccer ritual. Ms. Cassidy puts it succinctly when she says, “This game is all about the love.”
No wonder, then, that I’m already dreaming of next summer, dreaming of playing a game I adore with people I know and others who perhaps haven’t yet arrived from distant shores.
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Note: To ensure privacy, only first names have been used for some interviewees.