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Missoula's Refugee Soccer Tournament Breaks Cultural Barriers

Missoulians play soccer on a field in the Upper Rattlesnake on Wednesday, June 12, 2018.
Maxine Speier
Missoulians play soccer on a field in the Upper Rattlesnake on Wednesday, June 12, 2018.

The FIFA World Cup kicked off Thursday, and in Missoula, people are preparing for another multinational soccer tournament this weekend.

Soft Landing Missoula is hosting its second annual soccer tournament Saturday at Fort Missoula in honor of World Refugee Day.

Aven Yosuf grew up playing soccer every day in Eritrea, but he called it futbol, and had some trouble finding people to play with when he first got to Missoula.

"I was like, can I play futbol? And they were like oh, what do you mean football? Do you want to play American football? I was like, what’s American football? And what’s futbol?"

When Aven and his mom resettled in Missoula a year and a half ago, Aven says he was surprised the sport wasn’t as popular here as it was in his home country.

Aven is part of Missoula’s small, but growing refugee community. Since August 2016, 44 families — close to 170 refugees — have relocated to Missoula, often fleeing from war-torn countries.

Soft Landing Missoula is a non-profit that works to help refugees like Aven and his mom find their feet, offering English classes, driving lessons, monthly supper clubs and other community gatherings. Aven says Soft Landing gave him a place to go and introduced him the larger Missoula community through events like the soccer tournament.

"I mean, I play with some refugee kids in my neighborhood and other places. I like to play soccer and I play soccer, like, always," he says.

Aven competed in last year’s inaugural tournament, where he says he had a great time even though his team lost. This year he’s hoping to make it to the final round.

Mary Poole is the director of Soft Landing.

"Last year, our first year, was amazing. We had about 250 folks come out for the celebration and it was just really incredible to see the community coming out in support of refugees and being able to interact with families and celebrate together."

Poole says teams are arranged to mix the refugees with other community members and to give every team a range of ages and skill levels. Teammates meet each other for the first time on the morning of the tournament and compete in back to back matches until the final showdown at 4 p.m.

Poole says mixing up the teams helps with Soft Landing’s mission of integrating communities.

"To see people that hadn't met before win soccer games together, and maybe didn't even speak the same language. But soccer seems to be one of those universal languages where communication just happens naturally on the field."

Moses Okeyo is an attorney who played on the team that won last year’s tournament.

"It’s a fun tournament even if you’re not coming to play, you can come and watch. It’s pretty fun and it’s a lot of fun people just playing their heart out and having a good time," he says.

Okeyo is from Kenya. He’s not a refugee, but he plays soccer in a weekly game that refugees often join in on, and he says the idea of soccer as universal language holds true.

"You signal, you shout, you raise your hands to get attention and to show the other players where you are, so you don’t need to be able to communicate English or any other language, it’s just the language of the game."

Peter Stark is a writer who plays in the weekly games with Okeyo. Stark missed last year’s tournament but is looking forward to competing tomorrow.

"I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve found soccer is this amazing entry into another culture, and I’ve had nothing but generosity from the people in these other cultures who invite me into their games. And so, I’m so pleased to be able to give that back to the people, the refugees who are coming here."

Registration for tomorrow’s co-ed soccer tournament is $45, but the celebration at 5 p.m. is free.

Soft Landing’s Mary Poole says families can come by Fort Missoula’s soccer fields to watch the heated final match around 4 p.m. and stick around for food, dancing and drumming performances.

There will be classic American barbecue, and also cooking from some of Missoula’s refugee chefs. An Iraqi chef will be cooking falafel sandwiches. Another family will be making baklava. And guests can try classic Eritrean dishes like injera, a spongy bread, and doro wat, a spicy chicken stew.

Aven says he’s looking forward to the food, but mainly, he’s looking forward to seeing people come out to support the refugees.

"Missoula is a really great place and the people are really nice, you know, they are really welcoming for us."

Details on the soccer tournament and celebration can be found here:

On Wednesday, June 20 the International Rescue Committee in Missoula will be supporting refugees on World Refugee Day by hosting a day of action culminating in a Facebook Live stream. During the stream, we will be inviting anyone who wants to stand with refugees to take collective action by calling and writing our legislators to encourage them to support refugee resettlement in Montana and the USA. You can view the Facebook event here:

On Thursday, June 21 the International Rescue Committee in Missoula is hosting an additional IRC Missoula volunteer training and orientation so you can continue to support refugees through volunteering your time to mentor new families as they arrive to Missoula. You can view the Facebook event here:


Maxine is the All Things Considered host and reporter for MTPR. She got her start at MTPR as a Montana News intern. She has also worked at KUNC in Northern Colorado and for Pacific Standard magazine as an editorial fellow covering wildfire and the environment.
Maxine graduated from the University of Montana with a master's degree in natural resource journalism and has a degree in creative writing from Vassar College. When she’s not behind the microphone you can find Maxine skiing, hiking with her not-so-well-behaved dogs, or lost in a book.
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