Dayton’s foreign-born population has grown dramatically in recent years. While the number of immigrants is smaller than that in some other cities around the United States, people from more than 100 different countries call Dayton home.
That international diversity was on display at a special recent soccer game. The Dayton World Soccer Games is designed to help the city’s immigrant and refugee newcomers feel at home.
It’s a misty morning out on the soccer fields at the Action Sports Center in Dayton, and teams with players from all over the world have gathered here for a one-day tournament.
But before the games begin, there’s a so-called parade of nations.
All the teams line up, and tournament organizer Lamonte Hall gives some fun facts about each country. It’s a bit like a game show as the crowd isn’t sure which country will be called next.
“Our next country is located in Central Africa,” Hall says. “It has a 25-mile coast line on the Atlantic Ocean. It is the second largest country on the continent. The capital is Kinshasa. Over 200 languages are spoken. Please help me welcome the Congo!”
Then, the team marches out under their flag, and it feels like a mini-Olympics or one-day World Cup.
The rules for forming a team are simple.
Each team has to have at least one player who is an immigrant or refugee from the county that team represents. But in most cases, there are players from many different nations on each team.
For example, the Congolese team has players from not just the Congo, but also the Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and other African nations.
Hall says that that’s the goal of the games.
“Within the city of Dayton, we have so many different communities, but a lot of times the communities will stay to themselves or in their own pockets. We wanted to have a way to bring those different communities out together in one place to have a good time.”
And Welcome Dayton organizers say soccer is the perfect way to bring newly arrived refugees together because most are familiar with the sport from their home countries.
This annual tournament is part of a larger mission in Dayton.
Organizers hope players will come for the fun of sport, and leave connected to the services they need to start new lives in the Miami Valley.
The Dayton World Soccer Games was started in 2012 by Welcome Dayton, a Dayton initiative dedicated to helping immigrants and refugees feel at home in the city.
Martha Jeanette Rodriguez is an immigrant-relations specialist. She says connecting refugees to assistance programs can be a challenge, but outreach workers try to find people where they already gather.
“Something we are doing is going out to the stores and churches,” she says. “And we provide information about our services.”
Those services include everything from small business startup assistance to information about civil rights and police relations. There's also a monthly event where an attorney is present to help people with immigration and naturalization issues.
Many of the teams at the soccer tournament are also sponsored by organizations that help new and aspiring Americans.
The Congolese team is coached by Santino Almuraka, a residential advisor at the Dayton Job Corps Center. And most of the players on the team are immigrants and refugees taking classes through Dayton Job Corps.
“We also do job placement,” Almuraka says. “So, after they graduate, we try to find them jobs. Basically, we’re just trying to [help them] make better lives.”
Soccer player Vianny Serugo is currently taking classes through Job Corps. He came to America from the Congo as a refugee.
He says he left his country to escape a civil war, which he calls “crazy stuff.”
Now that he’s in Dayton, he says he hopes to learn a skilled trade that will help him find a good paying job, “then do something to help my country get peace,” he says.
Serugo has only been in United States a year, but he’s picking up the language quickly, and at Job Corps, he found an adviser who relates personally to his situation.
Rumenge Mbonigaba came over from the Congo as a refugee eight years ago. Now he helps other refugees like Serugo.
“Don’t let your past hold you back," he tells his clients. "You’ve got to keep forward. Because here, to get a better life, you have to work.”
Mbonigaba says he encourages his fellow refugees to study English and find jobs. He says the language barrier is a big deal for immigrants and refugees, and without English, finding work and accessing services can be a struggle.
Today, Team Congo is playing a team that calls itself “The New Americas.”
That team has players from seven different nations, but its players wanted to play under the American flag.
There are also teams representing Mexico, Brazil and a handful of other countries.
But regardless of where the players originate from, they say playing soccer helps them to feel at home in Ohio, and that their teammates feel like a family of sorts.
Welcome Dayton organizers say that’s what they’re going for -- for Dayton to be “a city of inclusion,” an immigrant-friendly city.
Organizers say they hope the Dayton World Soccer Games tournament will make some of the city’s newest residents feel like they belong here, too.