As a national debate rages over Syrian refugees, a prep soccer team from a small community in Maine offers an example how refugees and residents combined can create a greater good.
Earlier this month, the Lewiston boys’ soccer team — featuring refugees from Congo, Kenya, Turkey, Germany and Somalia — capped a perfect season with a 1-0 victory over Scarborough, delivering the team’s first state soccer championship. The Blue Devils (18-0) outscored opponents 114-7 this season and are ranked No. 23 in the USA TODAY High School Sports/National Soccer Coaches Association of America Super 25 Rankings.
The state title came 13 years after Lewiston’s then-Mayor Laurier Raymond decried the influx of Somali refugees to the town. “This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all,” he said in 2002. “I am well aware of the legal right of a U.S. citizen to move anywhere … but it is time for the Somali community to exercise discipline.”
Lewiston coach Mike McGraw took a different approach when many of those same refugees — along with others from different backgrounds — tried out for the team several years ago.
As McGraw explained in a segment of Ian Clough’s documentary film on the team, the refugees came with the promise, “We’re going to make a champion.” However, during one early practice, the returning players and the refugees gathered on opposite ends of the field.
“I went to both groups and said, ‘I want you guys to come over here in the middle and sit,'” McGraw explained. “So, I sat this guy here and that guy there, so that they were intermingled and speckled with color, and I said, ‘This is how a team plays. This is how I want you to be on the field and off the field — together.'”
Eight members of Lewiston’s state championship-winning team were raised together in a Somalian refugee camp in Kenya before arriving in Lewiston, according to the Portland Press Herald, including Maulid Abdow, who scored the title game’s lone goal on a throw-in.
Emmy Award-winner Amy Bass made the connection between the global discussion about Syrian refugees, the recent terrorism attacks in Paris and the Lewiston soccer team for CNN.
As an already intense global conversation regarding terrorism escalated, news that one of the terrorists at Stade de France entered Europe by exploiting a Syrian refugee network created a political frenzy as to where the people who were fleeing this kind of violence in their everyday lives should go, with a slate of U.S. governors declaring that their states should be off limits.
But perhaps soccer, rather than serve as a pinpoint for terror, can serve as an example of what can happen in the face of a refugee crisis.
As Abdikadir Negeye, who mentored many of Lewiston’s players as youths after co-founding Maine’s Somali Bantu Youth Association in 2008, explained to CNN, “When we started as an organization, we just wanted to keep those kids off the street. We were trying to just get them ready for high school, teach them social skills. That’s what makes them a good team now — they know how to work together. Now they are champions.”
And, really, what’s more American than that?