Soccer game

Football game is a ‘way to connect’ for refugees and Greensboro city staff

Greensboro has a large population of people displaced from their home countries, a fact the city celebrates each year on World Refugee Day. The event has long included an annual football match with players showing off the skills they have learned in different parts of the world. This year’s game in June included something new — a home team.

Adamou Mohamed is from the Republic of Niger. He came to America as a student in New York and moved to Greensboro to get away from the cold. Here he is an organizer for Church World Service, helping refugees and asylum seekers like him find their way in their new country.

Many of the newcomers he meets share one of his passions – a love for football, or football, as it is known in most countries around the world.

“Football also for us, you know, to come and set up a way of distress and to forget some of the traumatic experiences that some of our refugees have had,” he says. “And therefore also a way to connect with the community. Because when newcomers come to meet other people who have been here for, like me, for years, I mean, they find friendship, they find someone that they can maybe connect with, and also help them in their integration.

According to the latest census figures, more than 10% of Greensboro’s population was foreign born. Many come for various opportunities. Others are here to escape trouble in their home country. Southeast Asian Highlanders began arriving in the 1980s, and the city has since welcomed refugees from around the world. Some of the newest arrivals are from Afghanistan.

As part of its celebration of World Refugee Day, the city of Greensboro included a soccer game between refugee teams, made up mostly of players from Africa, but also representing other countries. Mohamed says the game is a chance to broaden the international community’s understanding of the city.

“Refugees come with talents, with experiences, and they are always ready to give back. And we’ve seen how they contribute, you know, tremendously to those in their new home,” he says. “And yes, I think it’s a good thing to have refugees brought in socially, culturally and economically.”

Many members of the refugee team are not exactly newcomers to the area. Some have been here for years, including Alou Kamara, who has been here for over two decades.

“I came and loved it and stayed,” he says.

Civil war drove Kamara from his native Sierra Leone on the West African coast. He came to the United States and settled in Maryland for a time. He eventually moved to Greensboro, where he has family. He is a veteran of this annual game.

“For me, it’s always an opportunity because we have young Africans who have come through the refugee program,” says Kamara. “And I’m glad the city of Greensboro has this initiative because it’s an opportunity to see that we actually have a bigger refugee community, you know?”

Also on the field this year, a new challenger: a team made up of athletes who work for the city of Greensboro. It was made up of police, firefighters and other Greensboro personnel.

“Football is almost like you could think of it as an international language,” said Deputy Chief of Police John Thompson, one of the players for the city team.

Unlike most of its opponents, football has not been a lifelong passion. He’s more of a basketball guy. He says he quit playing football around the age of 12 and only picked it up again in recent years. Yet, even if his skills are a little rusty, he still has a keen sense of what friendly competition can do.

“I think there really is no better way to connect with someone,” he says. “The refugee team has a lot of football experience, they like it, they enjoy it. And so it kind of reduces any discomfort of not knowing each other and really allows us to connect.”

On game day, the two teams faced off at Hester Park in southeast Greensboro, where a nice breeze made the sunny field more comfortable.

The refugee team was dressed in royal blue uniforms. City staff wore green. Daniel Stanley, Greensboro’s survey supervisor, worked on the sidelines of the city team. Mohamed was his counterpart for the refugees.

At the start, the game was close. The first half ended with the refugee team leading by just one goal. Their defense shut down the City team in the second half and they won 5–2.

Members of the refugee team hoist the trophy after defeating a team of Greensboro city workers in a World Refugee Day game in June. PAUL GARBER/WFDD

To celebrate the victory, each member of the team walked through a small stage to hoist their new trophy and tell the crowd their country of origin.

The players met in midfield to share handshakes and laughs. Mohamed says his team appreciates that City wanted to play against them.

“Seeing how the city staff come together and support this game, in particular, and how motivated they are, I think it’s something that’s really close to my heart,” he says.

City staff will get another chance. Next year it will be a revenge for the chance to win the trophy. A friendly competition between two teams with players from different backgrounds but a common bond: both teams live in Greensboro.