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August 03, 2022

Washington D.C. Soccer Program Connects Refugee Children with Sport

For resettled refugee children, the L.A.C.E.S. soccer program provides a fun space to learn and play the world’s favorite game.

From the outside looking in, the L.A.C.E.S. (Life and Change Experienced thru Sports) soccer camp appears to be like your typical summer extracurricular activity: kids are playing, practicing soccer drills with their coaches, hanging out by the snack stand and enjoying the last few days of summer with their friends. But unlike most summer camps, the 9- to 14-year-olds here not only share a common love for soccer, they also all share the experience of being recently resettled refugees in the United States.

Zainab and Tamana taking a break between scrimmages.

This year, L.A.C.E.S. hosted its first fully in-person soccer program since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each day the kids and coaches from over seven different nationalities focused on a different theme such as honesty, self-esteem and respect. On the final day, they had a huge picnic, where the children were given soccer equipment to take home and continue practicing. 

Siblings Ziba and Noor playing a soccer game

Aminullah, a refugee from Afghanistan and an aspiring professional soccer player and YouTuber, learned how to play the game from attending L.A.C.E.S. soccer programs over the years. “It’s fun and you can play with your friends,” he said. 

Another participant, Mulki, a refugee from Ethiopia, expressed how much the sport meant to her. “I realized soccer isn’t just a sport, it’s something different. I can’t explain it,” she said. “It’s better to be here. [In my neighborhood really play and have fun without violence.”

To them, their experience with the L.A.C.E.S. program is about hanging out with their friends and siblings and having the space to play a game they love. But the impact L.A.C.E.S. has, and strives towards, goes further than an innocent scrimmage. For refugee children, sports can play a particularly important healing role, helping to address health as well as social and developmental needs.

L.A.C.E.S. founder Seren Fryatt realized the value of soccer and sports for children, especially those who find themselves in or from conflict ridden communities, during her time as a volunteer and professional soccer player in Liberia. She used her first-hand experience to bring to life a one-of-a-kind program for refugees in the Washington, D.C. area. “Liberia where I was had just come out of a 14-year civil war, and it was the first time I saw soccer than more than a game.” 

Muhhammed, Ramin, Shaker, and Hafeezullah, during soccer drills

Seren realized that the challenges refugee children face do not go away once they arrive in the United States. Instead, they are met with continued barriers to education, bullying, and cultural adjustments. Through partnerships with resettlement agencies, donation drives for soccer equipment, fundraisers, and the goal to provide mentorship and life-changing tools, L.A.C.E.S. was created. “L.A.C.E.S uses the power of sports to mentor at-risk youth or youth who need a connection to their community. Specifically, in the DMV area with recently resettled refugees,” Seren explained, referring to the D.C., Maryland and Virginia metropolitan area. “Our kids live in spaces where there’s no green space. So, when they come out here it’s freedom. They want to play soccer. It’s one week out of the year for all of these kids to do this.”

2022 L.A.C.E.S. Soccer Camp participants

Although only one weeklong, campers look forward to the safe, fun and social space L.A.C.E.S. creates every year. “Graduates” of the program often come back as volunteers and coaches, younger siblings take the role of campers and the love for soccer continues. The summer program is a sentimental reminder that around the world, people can unite over soccer and heal through sport.

Originally reported by UNHCR

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