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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  A League of Their Own
News & Columns

A League of Their Own

Between worries abroad and the stress of assimilation, Sudanese refugees come together through soccer at Glendale Park.

By Geoff Griffin
Posted // June 11,2007 -

As Simon Kuay looks around Glendale Park, he sees more than just a tattered patch of grass at 1200 West and 1700 South. He sees a place where Sudanese refugees have come together to build a community through playing soccer.

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“We changed a lot of people’s lives here,” Kuay says. “Life would be different for them. Without this place, maybe some people would leave Utah without recognizing that their friends are here.?

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The small park appears to be little more than three soccer fields, a small parking lot and restrooms. Yet it is a place where refugees learned they weren’t alone when they landed in Salt Lake City. They would show up at Glendale Park to play or watch their favorite sport, a sport they had played in refugee camps on dirt fields with bare feet and a ball made of a pile of rags tied together. They came for soccer, but the unassuming west-side park came to mean more than a game.

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As Sudanese refugees arrived in Salt Lake City, more and more began showing up at the park. They’d heard they could see other Sudanese, maybe even run into someone they had grown up with or lived with in a refugee camp. It became the place to get news about what was happening in the Sudanese community both locally and abroad and find out about weddings, funerals or church gatherings.

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Getting to America wasn’t easy. Some tell of a journey that started with having to flee home and family by night to escape death squads. They traveled hundreds of miles by foot or hitchhiking to reach a refugee camp. A stay in the camp could end up lasting years while getting by on United Nations rations distributed every 15 days. Then, a lucky few found out they would be sent to American cities they had never heard of before.

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Things weren’t easy for them in America, either. The culture and the language were both intimidating. Everything, from televisions to cars to snow, was a completely new experience. It wasn’t easy living alone in an apartment in the city after growing up with a large extended family in a small farming village.

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But in Salt Lake City, on Saturday and Sunday nights, there was a chance to find a place of belonging.

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“Glendale Park helped a lot of people,” Kuay says. “It created a lot of friends. You miss your family, but when you come here, you have a family.?

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Kuay, 32, was one of the first Sudanese refugees to come to Utah 12 years ago. He began playing soccer at Glendale Park in 1997 with refugees from a variety of African nations. Over the years, he has witnessed the growth of the Sudanese community in Salt Lake City. A measure of that growth is seeing how many people turn up at weekend soccer matches.

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“Whenever they came to Salt Lake, they came here,” Kuay’s friend John Hakim explains. “This is the only park where they can see everyone. This is our place. We got nowhere else to go.?

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Hundreds of Sudanese playing soccer in the park got noticed.

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“People would come by here and slow down because they see so many black people,” Hakim says with a laugh. “The cops would stop just to see what was going on.?

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New Continent, Same Favorite Game

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The Sudanese are just one group of African refugees playing soccer in Utah. Teams of refugees from Somalia, Liberia and Congo have also been formed, and sometimes play each other. Sudanese teams will sometimes travel to other cities in Colorado, Arizona and California to play other Sudanese teams. Teams generally start playing as soon as the snow melts in the spring and keep playing until it snows again the next winter.

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Kuay estimates that there are currently four or five teams of adult Sudanese men playing the sport around Salt Lake City. The Sudanese population is made up of various tribes, and one of those, the Mabaan, has formed its own team, Ut Tonboma, which plays in a league called Soccer Mexico Utah.

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Another Sudanese team, the African Lions, played in the league last year but elected not to this year because it would have cost each player $25. Some players feel they shouldn’t have to pay to play at Glendale Park when they could play there for free for years. Since their main reasons for playing the game are to have fun and create a social gathering place, the Sudanese players still get together and scrimmage or arrange games with one another and with other African teams on Saturday and Sunday nights at Glendale Park.

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“If You Are Sitting Home, You Are Bored”

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When Toang Buom, 22, left Africa in 2000 to immigrate to America, he was scared. As part of his refugee processing before he left, he was required to watch a video describing how life would be different in the United States. The presentation stressed the importance of not wandering off alone. You might get lost, or worse, kidnapped. America was a place where you could just disappear. “We were just depending on what we were told,” he explains.

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Despite his harrowing experiences growing up in Africa, when Buom arrived in Utah as a 16-year-old, he was afraid to leave the apartment he shared with his uncle. It didn’t help that virtually everything outside that apartment was something he was unfamiliar with.

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However, after about six months at the Riverside Apartments, about a block away from Glendale Park, fear gave way to boredom. Buom looked over at the park and noticed other Sudanese playing soccer.

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“They were just playing for fun,” he says. “They invited anyone who knew how to play soccer.?

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He ventured over and, beyond soccer, found the community he was looking for. “I went over to play because I wanted to meet people. ? If you are sitting home, you are bored.”

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“I Feel Like I Got a Family Here”

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Home and family are never very far from the mind of Markus Werge. He thinks back to his homeland and says, “I remember now old friends back there, and I miss them.” But when he gets to Glendale Park on Saturday evenings and lines up on a side with 10 other members of the Mabaan tribe, it takes him back.

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“We know each other and play soccer together in Sudan,” Werge says. “It’s much better now. We feel like we are in our own home.

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“I feel like I got a family here,” he says. “It’s important to me when I join with other family.?

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When Werge first heard that other Mabaan were playing soccer, he was unsure about venturing out to play because he was still learning English. “Maybe white people will come over and ask us something, and we won’t know how to answer them,” he worried.

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“When we get together like this, it’s better,” he says of playing soccer with his fellow Mabaan. “It’s like being back there.?

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“A Good Place for Families”

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It’s difficult to tell just how many Sudanese refugees are in the Salt Lake City area. Estimates range from around 2,000 to 5,000 or more. Numbers from Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee, the two agencies which contract with the federal government to provide assistance to refugees from countries all over the world during their first six months in Utah, suggest that about 1,000 Sudanese have been assigned to Salt Lake City since 1994. That original number may have grown due to a phenomenon known as “second migration,” where refugees are initially placed in one American city but, after time, relocate to be near family and friends.

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Wiual Jang, an employment coordinator for Catholic Community Services who works with Sudanese refugees and is himself a refugee from that country, said there are two reasons many refugees move from their initial placements to Salt Lake City. The first is the availability of English courses for adults offered through Salt Lake City School District’s Horizonte High School. The second is one given by many people, refugee or otherwise, who move to the Beehive State: “Utah is a good place for families,” Jang said.

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Utah is also a magnet because groups such as the Asian Association, Utah Peace Institute and LDS Humanitarian Center'which offers a one-year paid training program for those without English or job skills'provide assistance.

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“Now We Are Safe”

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Simon Kuay is trying to live the American Dream by pursuing a route many previous generations of immigrants have taken'opening his own small shop. Kuay recently opened K & K African Market on 996 S. Redwood Road with his 23-year-old brother, Mariel Kuay. Part of his motivation to make the business a success is to be able to help his family in the old country.

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Simon had to leave his home in southern Sudan at the age of 14, in 1988, because “they were killing the kids who were bigger,” and he had become old enough that he would become a target. He spent the next six years in Ethiopia and Kenya before coming to America.

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“Now we are safe,” is how Kuay recalls feeling on arriving in Utah. “The only problem was what are we going to do with the people back there? The only option was to work.?

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For Sudanese refugees, the desire to bring loved ones to America goes beyond simply wanting to be close to them again. Family members left behind are often in perilous situations and, for many, their sole support is money wired to them every month by refugees in America.

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Kuay’s small market offers a money-wiring service along with foods from a variety of countries. There are also plans to offer a small café. He said he gets customers from African nations as well as the Middle Eastern and European immigrants because he offers imported products not generally available in America. He even draws eclectic Americans. Kuay hopes his store can play a role in the cohesiveness of the Sudanese community.

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“It’s really important that we have a community here,” he says. “There’s no community like this in some other places. Utah is one of the places that accepted most of the refugees.?

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“They Just Come Up to My Mind”

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Toang Buom checks his e-mail and the Internet around 9:30 a.m. His family back in Africa does not have Internet access, but he tries to keep up with African events through other Sudanese in America and Internet news sites.

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“I been away from my family a long time,” he says. “They just come up to my mind. I want to see how they are doing. I’m just watching to see if war is going to break out again.?

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The 22-year-old Buom speaks softly so as not to wake the three roommates with whom he shares his small Salt Lake City apartment. None of them got home before 2 a.m. last night after pulling eleven and a half hour shifts at a local company where Buom works as a machinist. Buom is putting in about 60 hours a week now but plans to cut back when he begins taking classes at Columbia College. He needs the money because he is supporting not only himself but two brothers attending school in Ethiopia. He wires them $100 each month. “They don’t get anything else,” he says of his brothers. “There’s no jobs. Everything was destroyed by the war.?

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Even at his young age, Buom feels mature in his responsibilities. “I know that I am safe here. They’re not safe over there. What if I get fired??

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Buom left his home in Sudan in 1996 at the age of 12. He went to a city in Ethiopia, but when war broke out in that country in 1998, he was sent to the Cherkole refugee camp. “They made us go there because they don’t need refugees in the city,” he says. He spent two years in a refugee camp before being sent to America in 2000 to live in Tennessee. He soon relocated to Salt Lake City to be near his grandmother and uncle.

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Despite all he’s been through, Buom, like many other Sudanese refugees, speaks of his experiences in a dignified, matter-of-fact manner, neither expecting nor seeking sympathy. “I’m comfortable talking about it because I lived through it a long time,” he says, adding, “I’m proud to be here.?

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Dr. Ljubica “Buba” Roth, who works with refugees through the Utah Peace Institute, says that it is important to view refugees as heroes rather than victims, because it is easy to say to victims, “You are not capable, but you’re cute.?

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“Refugees are heroes,” she says. “They stood up against a regime. Otherwise, they would not be refugees. They are heroes by choice.?

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Religion and the Mabaan

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Markus Werge is a Sudanese refugee, but what he identifies with more than that is his membership in the Mabaan tribe. As he gets ready for work on the graveyard shift at a window manufacturing company, he speaks of his wish that his two small children, age 3 and 1 1/2, might grow up also knowing they are Mabaan.

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Werge and his wife, Rebecca Weda, are being visited by friends who just moved to Utah from Iowa to be near other Mabaan. Although the small apartment has five toddlers in it, it is immaculately clean and the children are all quiet. The apartment is decorated with articles African in style, but with distinctly American trappings also. A plaque in the front window reads, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.?

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It may be through religion that Werge will get a chance to show his children what it means to be Mabaan. A group of over 60 Mabaan, a number which includes children, began holding meetings and services at Wasatch Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City this past summer. The Mabaan meet with all other church members once a month in common meetings but on other Sundays hold their own meetings in their own language, also called Mabaan. “It is not to be separate, but just to keep it out there to know where I came from,” he says. “Otherwise, kids get confused.?

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The meetings also help preserve their language. “That’s a part of our culture. It will be helpful for kids. When someone ask them, ?Where do you come from?’ and they say, ?I don’t know,’ that’s not good.?

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Werge said he and other Mabaan in places like Nebraska, Iowa and Texas are talking about trying to get all of the immigrant Mabaan communities together to live in one city, because, “Family have to be in the same place. You don’t have to have a reunion to get together.?

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“I Could Change People”

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Members of the Sudanese refugee community are proud to be Americans, and many can take satisfaction in having worked hard to build a community in Salt Lake City. “It’s easy here unless I don’t want to work,” Buom notes. Still, it’s hard not to miss the place you grew up. “Home is home, and I miss home, even if I don’t know it very much,” he says.

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When asked if they would like to return to Sudan, many refugees say yes but not necessarily to live. They are more concerned with going back to check on family and help out in any way they can.

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“If I went back home, I could change people and help them to live better,” Buom says. “I would love to go back and help people.?

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In the meantime, while they are in America, Sudanese refugees continue to find community, comfort, camaraderie and friendship on a tattered piece of grass at 1200 West and 1700 South.

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