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Teens From War-Torn Regions Find Safety on Soccer Field

A soccer tournament is underway on a field next to a busy street in Baltimore, an hour or so outside of Washington, DC. Four teams of teenage boys are competing for ribbons and a gold cup. They could be from anywhere, but these teens are all refugees from conflict zones - Iraqis, Burmese, Bhutanese, and Meskhetian Turks.

A chance to play soccer in safety

Marwan Saleh plays defense for the Iraqi team, the "Tigers." The 17-year-old left his homeland nine months ago. "There, there's war. We don't have a chance to play soccer," he explains. "It's my chance to play soccer. We cannot live there. We don't have jobs. We cannot study; we cannot do anything. There's war, there's shooting, there are guns, gangs, the army, fighting between people. Here's better for us - safe. We can study. We can do anything here. Here is the future."

It is easy to identify where the kids in the white uniforms are from, since the team name, "Burmese," appears on the front. During a time-out on this hot day, they gather around their 18-year-old coach, Donald Cin for a pep talk.

Cin came to the U.S. from Burma five years ago. "Our parents, they had a lot of hardship because of the government," he recalls. "They [went] through a lot. My father came here before us, and he called us to come. After I finish high school, I'm going to go to college. Then after that, maybe I'm going to go back to my country. Who knows?" he says with a laugh.

While the Iraqi and Burmese teams play, Ravil Khramanov sits on the sidelines, talking with his teammates and waiting for their game to begin. Ravil is a Meskhetian Turk. The Turkish-speaking Muslim minority group, originally from southwestern Georgia, was deported by Stalin in the 1940s to what were then the Soviet Central Asian republics.

Fair and blond with a wide grin, the 11-year-old wears his red uniform proudly. Ravil came to the U.S. when he was 7 and says he experienced culture shock. "Everything is different. When I first came to America, I didn't know English. It was bad. I studied social studies, math, reading. I play soccer every day."

Lessons for life from the soccer field

The International Rescue Committee sponsored this tournament. The IRC's refugee resettlement program in Baltimore is run by Fikremariam Worku, who came to the U.S. as an asylum seeker from Ethiopia in 2003. He says the boys gain a lot from this team experience. "It's going to help them come together, help them lead a healthy life. It will help them develop a sense of identity. It will help them also to introduce them to their local community. We want them to be integrated as much as possible, so they will be a healthy community."

And it's fun, too, says Mazen Abdulwahab, 16, who plays for the Iraqi Tigers. "It's nice. A fun game. The sport, it's an important sport in the world, you know. It's the best sport in the world."

Burmese team coach Donald Cin agrees that this soccer tournament is a great idea. "I think it's amazing. The name is Peace Cup. We get to know a lot of people from different countries and even on our team, there's a unity. I think it's really good." And his team had a lot to celebrate, since they won the first Peace Cup tournament.

Plans are now underway to create a permanent refugee soccer league -- a Peace League -- in Baltimore.