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On Saturday, May 31, the final day of DFW International Alliance's African Unity Cup soccer tournament, dozens of players will gather at a field thousands of miles and worlds away from where they began.
There's Alie Patrick Koroma, a defender from Sierra Leone, the West African nation still shadowed by war-time amputations and child soldiers. There's Hisham Awadelkariem, the manager of the DFW Sudan Club, a team of political asylees and refugees who escaped the country's civil war, and more recently, the genocide in Darfur.
Eric Butoyi will be there, too, but he and his fellow Burundians will cheer from the sidelines, since they were eliminated in the first weeks of the tournament. They're the newest refugee group to settle in the area after fleeing the tiny country that borders Rwanda and remains ensnared in Hutu-Tutsi violence, and their team includes members of both ethnic groups. As they celebrate this first tournament and prepare for the Taste of Africa Food Festival and Cultural Celebration on Sunday, June 1, rebels and soldiers back in Burundi will likely be struggling to revive an ailing ceasefire.
The goal of the tournament held at the University of Texas at Dallas is to transcend the past, enjoy the present and meet fellow Africans from more than a dozen different countries. DFW International's board realized last year that the simplest way to unite the area's African immigrants—who, according to a 2007 report by the nonprofit number some 85,000—would be through their most cherished sport.
"We thought that was the best because with soccer, everyone's at the field—men, women, children—everyone's cheering their teams," says Florence Campbell, a DFW International board member originally from Sierra Leone. "Everyone brings food from different countries—it's like a little party."
Indeed, as the 13 teams faced off in recent weeks, people cooked for the occasion and appeared at the field with various fare, from meatballs to pepper chicken to akara, popular deep-fried fritters from West Africa.
"Africa has been misunderstood," says Koroma, 40, a doctoral candidate and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who left Sierra Leone in 1995. "The media only reports about corruption, famine, violence—Africa's so much more than that—it's 54 countries with different cultures and languages." And yet he acknowledges that those differences have given rise to divisions that carry over to local immigrant communities. Soccer is one way to melt the barriers.
Butoyi, who came to Dallas from Burundi with his family in 2006 after spending years in a Tanzanian refugee camp, says that when they first organized the team, the Hutus and Tutsis were wary of playing together. It wasn't a surprise. Butoyi's own family had been targeted by both sides in Burundi because his parents are of mixed ancestry.
"At first it was not easy," Butoyi says of starting the team. "But as you play, you forget about everything. You just play. Then, at practice, you sit and talk to each other. Now, we are friends."
Awadelkariem began organizing the Sudanese team three years ago and noticed the same pattern. He understood his country's divisions, having fled Khartoum in 1991 after he was targeted for speaking out against the Islamic government. But he worked to bring members of the various clique-based teams together to represent Sudan's Dallas immigrants. At first, his compatriots were suspicious. Those from southern Sudan were reluctant to play with the northerners, who they said had oppressed them.
"When we started playing," he says, "those barriers just disappeared."
Koroma tells of a heated moment during the recent Morocco-Liberia game in which one of the Moroccan players called a Liberian a "monkey," a blatant racial slur. The Moroccan coach scolded the man, and the Moroccan player later apologized. "The Moroccan coach showed the spirit of the tournament," Koroma says. "The stereotypes you've grown up with, in heated moments, they come out. The more you get to know different people, the more you learn they're not true."
By making the tournament an annual event, Koroma says it will be easier to build a support network for newly arrived African immigrants who feel disoriented and alone. He points out the recent death of Musa Bilay, an Eritrean refugee and father of 10 who in early May was struck by a car while attempting to cross LBJ Freeway. He'd been walking home from his dishwashing shift at Luby's Cafeteria on Midway Road after missing the last bus of the night. Nonprofit leaders who work with refugees attributed Bilay's death to linguistic isolation and the rural farmer's lack of familiarity with basic modern innovations such as freeways.
Koroma believes that if Bilay had been part of a wider immigrant support network, his death might have been avoided. "Immigrants come here and don't know their way around," he says. "When we can actually share a common culture, we know ourselves and can show the ropes to the new people coming in."
The Africa Unity Cup finals on the 31st begin with the competition for third place between Sudan and Morocco at 4 p.m. at the UT Dallas soccer field in Richardson, followed by the championship between Sierra Leone and Liberia at 6 p.m. Trophies will be awarded on June 1 at the Taste of Africa festival at SMU. For more information, visit www.dfwinternational.org/AfricanUnity.
For Koroma and Awadelkariem, the first soccer tournament is only the beginning. They're talking with other teams about starting an African league in 2009 and hope to showcase talented young African players—maybe even catch the attention of FC Dallas. But no matter what, it's about getting together and having fun.
"The soccer field," Koroma says, "has become a meeting ground where people can come play, talk and release stress."