OAKLAND, Calif. -- The 2010 FIFA World Cup kicks off this week, but for 80 players from various conflict-affected regions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, their battle for soccer supremacy was waged on a more intimate scale, on a sun-baked artificial pitch in one of Oakland's poorest neighborhoods.
You won't see Bhutan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq or Myanmar among the 32 teams competing in South Africa. But for two days, the San Francisco Bay Area Refugee World Cup bound these refugees and asylees who fled war and persecution in their homelands with a universal pastime.
"Wherever you are in the world, no matter how poor or troubled you are, there is always soccer. You can play it anywhere and we love it," says Ali Kareem, 32, whose efforts to coach and stand in goal for the Iraq team fell short over the weekend.
"Soccer gives us something in common. We all want to win, but mostly we just want to play."
That's why the Bay Area offices of the International Rescue Committee put out the call among its local group of resettled refugees, looking for players interested in a two-group, eight-team tournament.
"The response was, well, overwhelming," says John Hollis, 25, who's been working with the IRC on a one-year assignment through AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). "We have more players than we have spots on teams."
The Refugee World Cup was his idea, and the San Francisco office of the IRC rallied to secure a location -- Fremont High School's fenced artificial soccer field in West Oakland -- as well as donated jerseys, balls and soccer goals.
"Soccer is really an international tie for these guys. To integrate into this country and this culture is so hard for these refugees to do," says Hollis, who helps the newcomers find homes, jobs and, ultimately, to assimilate into their new communities without the IRC's helping hand. "But for these guys to come out and do something they already know how to do, which is to play soccer, it's a really nice confidence boost for them."
The biggest turnout? Players from Burma -- officially, the Union of Myanmar -- who came out in such numbers, they were split into three teams representing the civil war-torn regions they fled and their individual dialects: Kaw Thoo Lei, Karenni and Karen.
As Hollis split the full-length field into two pitches for side-by-side play, extra Burmese showed up at the last minute, eager to participate. They were assigned to fill gaps on other teams. Several Burmese players, most of them small in stature, were handed jerseys for Ethiopia.
"Some of the Ethiopian guys called in and said they had to work today," Hollis says with a shrug and a smile. "So we try to accommodate everybody."
As it turned out, having a Burmese on your team was probably an advantage: After two days of double-elimination competition, the Kaw Thoo Lei team (an ethnic group within the Karen people who have settled in southeastern Myanmar near Thailand) won the tournament, defeating the Bhutanese Union, 2-1 on a penalty kick shootout.
Kareem, the coach/goalkeeper of Iraq, saw first-hand how quick and sure-footed the Kaw Thoo Lei side was. It dominated the taller, stronger Iraqi team, 2-0, in an opening match on Saturday.
"I thought we were pretty good," Kareem says with a smile. "I should do better in goal."
So far, he's doing pretty well with his new life in America.
His story is compelling, and not unlike so many of the refugees helped by the IRC, which was founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein. The IRC motto is "From Harm to Home," and the organization works to promote sanctuary for refugees driven from their homelands, as well as self-sufficiency.
After being severely injured in a sidewalk bomb explosion in Baghdad in 2004, Kareem (pictured right) was forced to flee to neighboring Jordan after his Iraqi doctor became a target of persecution. The group there, Doctors Without Borders, took up his case.
As he underwent multiple surgeries to treat two broken legs, a broken arm, fractured ribs, an injured shoulder, hip and knee as well as extensive burns on his left arm, Kareem applied to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), seeking official refugee status.
Kareem hoped to remain in Jordan, but the country's agreement with Doctors Without Borders was that Iraqi patients ultimately had to return to their war-torn country once their medical treatment ended. With his UNHCR refugee status granted, Kareem was spared from returning to Iraq. That status ultimately allowed Kareem to be among the first IRC-sponsored Iraqis to repatriate in Northern California.
He moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Roseville, near Sacramento, and the place quickly filled with Iraqi refugee roommates, all seeking the same simple goals.
"There is a lot that is different. But knowing that it's the United States and it's a good environment for change and growth, I started to accept the challenges that I met, and the good things, too," Kareem says. "I had high expectations. And everything here has met my high expectations.
"It's easy to live here. Everything makes sense. You feel like you can do whatever you want."
With his impressive grasp of English and strong work ethic, Kareem found a good job with lingerie designer Mary Green Enterprises in San Francisco, doing inventory, handling Internet sales and customer service. But the recession recently cost Kareem his dream gig.
"I loved that job but I was laid off," says Kareem, sounding like a lot of people in this country. "But here, hey, you just go to Craigslist. You can check the Craigslist and find a job. Back there in Iraq, you had to know somebody."
Meanwhile, on the field, the action continued with the lanky squad from Eritrea playing the mixed group of smaller refugees manning the Ethiopia team. Hollis, whose one-year assignment with the IRC ends in August, hustled from field to field, trying to keep everything on schedule and organized.
The Massachusetts native and graduate of Bowdoin College also fretted a bit about taking his LSAT exam today. "It's probably not the best prep for me to be standing out here in the hot sun for eight hours the next two days," he says with a laugh. "But this is absolutely worth it."
The event, which Hollis hopes will become an annual tournament, showcases the similarities and common bond that even the most diverse people in the world often share.
"This is a pretty wide range of folks, and the IRC really restarts their lives here," Hollis (pictured above) says. "There are three options when you become a refugee. The first and best option is to go back to your home after the strife has ended -- if it ends. The second is to integrate into the society that you're in when you flee. When all else fails, the third option is to settle in a third country, and that's where the International Rescue Committee comes in."
The U.S. State Dept. and Homeland Security vets UNHCR refugees and asylees, then assigns them to various resettlement organizations. The IRC is one of those groups.
When Kareem was processed for a green card to live and work in the U.S., he underwent an extensive medical exam. A doctor was alarmed, but not surprised, when he found the 1-inch piece of shrapnel that remains lodged in Kareem's neck just below his windpipe -- a leftover from his encounter with the sidewalk bomb in Iraq six years ago.
"The doctor said most of the Iraqis in hospitals have a piece of metal in their bodies," Kareem says with a laugh. "So he told me to just keep it as a souvenir."
As Iraq devolved into civil unrest, chaos and war during his childhood, Kareem found solace in soccer. They had no balls, no goals.
"Back there, sometimes we used metal cans, plastic cans, just to kick them around when we were kids," he recalls. "It was still a lot of fun."
When a Bhutanese player kicked a shot out of bounds, a stray soccer ball quickly landed into his hands, and Kareem rolled it over and over, feeling the stitching and the cover and marveling at it.
"To have a ball like this? It's like, I couldn't even dream about it, to have a ball like this," Kareem says. "But we Iraqis, we are pretty good with the small plastic balls because we were so good with the cans. We can make really good moves with them. Now with a real ball, we can manage."
Matches in the inaugural Bay Area Refugee World Cup featured few goals but plenty of intense competition. Iraq and the African teams never advanced to Sunday's semifinals, while the Bhutan and Burmese teams dominated.
Iraq's opening loss on Saturday to Kaw Thoo Lei was a surprise, but the match ended with handshakes, high-fives and hugs, and a rousing Iraqi cheer on the sideline.
"Oh well, they were better than us. But it's OK. We had fun," said a grinning Ahmad Amin, 26 (pictured right), who raised the flag of Iraq for a triumphant team picture and stood out as the match's vocal and inspirational leader.
When a Kaw Thoo Lei player went down with an ankle injury following a first-half tackle, Amin rushed to his side, comforted him and helped carry his smaller opponent to the sideline.
It was that kind of tournament. Just playing in it was a victory, for an impressive group of young men who are rebuilding their lives and spirits in a place they truly consider the Land of the Free.
"We all had so many challenges -- language, finding a job, fitting into the community. It's been very hard for many of these guys," says Kareem, gesturing to the cultural melting pot on the soccer field. "But playing soccer? It's easy for them. So to win this tournament, it's really important to them.
"It helps them to feel good about themselves here. Because this is the place where anything is possible."