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Soccer helping immigrant students adjust to new home

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RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - For Dawoud Ginjavi and around a dozen other refugee kids, an empty field behind the Beulah Methodist Church in South Richmond, is a field of dreams.

The 12-year old sat down for a breather during a recent soccer practice to tell us why.

"I can play with ball”, he says in broken English. “I can play with cleats. I can play on grass in soccer field.”

His thick accent quickly gives away that he’s originally from Afghanistan; however it’s hard to believe he speaks English so well having just learned the language eight months ago.

To understand why this is a happy ending, you have to start in fields of famine and war, or in Dawoud’s case, racial persecution.

Dawoud’s family settled in Iran after fleeing the war in Afghanistan. His father died in a car crash there. 

Alone, his mother struggled to feed her five children. Bullies attacked them at school. 

Dawoud said that the worst part for him was that the Iranian kids wouldn't let him play his favorite game - soccer.

“Because I’m from Afghanistan they said, ‘You’re Afghani, we won’t let you, this is our country,’" he recollected. 

His family escaped to a refugee camp in Czechoslovakia for six months. Next, they came to Richmond through the U.S. Resettlement Program.

The family’s case worker spent five months trying to find them a permanent home. Dawoud, his mother and four younger brothers and sisters, lived in one room of a Richmond Motel in the meanwhile. They shared two beds and one bathroom.

Dawoud will tell you, it’s more than he’s ever had. All he ever wanted on that South Richmond soccer field is respect from other kids.

“Respect to me, first of all I want to respect everyone," he said. "I want to be a respectful kid, and I want others to respect me too."

He’s finding that respect from different kids, from different places, all with the same passion: soccer.

It wasn't the love of a game that brought them to this field.  It was the love of a teacher.

Dawoud is an English as a Second Language (ESL) student at Elkhardt Middle School off Hull Street. There are 140 kids in the program from 27 different countries.

"I’m going to be a doctor," Dawoud said. “I’m going back to Afghanistan and make hospitals."

"I’m going to make schools for kids who can’t go to school," he continued. "And make houses for people who don’t have a house." 

Teacher Rose Ballard said that while she’s able to help Dawoud, she sometimes has trouble getting through to other kids, especially those with a painful past.

“Most of the kids I have, particularly the ones from the refugee (camps), they've had their family killed," Ballard said. "I really try to know the kids, their parent(s), where they’ve come from.  And I even go to their houses to see them.  And I create a relationship between me and their parents, and that’s how they open up and tell me what is going on.”

Some of her refugee students told her the stress of trying to fit in with unfamiliar classmates, culture and curriculum was overwhelming.  According to Virginia Department of Education reports, their grades started slipping last year in core classes. 

Rose decided what they needed, was their common love of soccer. 

She reached out to Chesterfield soccer coach David Glass, co-founder of the non-profit First Touch Sports.  Some of Rose’s students told her how he was organizing soccer practices and games after school for kids in the growing Latino communities of South Richmond and northern Chesterfield. 

David had also been on a recent mission trip to Africa, delivering soccer balls to kids who’d never had the opportunity to play with a real one.  He met refugees who were on their way to the United States. 

“Things aren’t always rosy when they get here either,” Coach Glass said. “That’s why we’re trying to help out is to provide some extra help and services to just let ‘em be kids.” 

With Rose’s help, he organized an after-school program for students in her ESL classes.  Equipment is donated, and often he and Rose use their own cars to pick up kids for practices and games.

Through his First Touch Sports organization, Coach Glass teaches kids more than soccer skills.  He teaches them life skills like patience, endurance and humility.  And that they can rise above being just individuals who speak a different language.

Rose sees improving grades and more smiles thanks to this soccer program.  More importantly, she and Coach Glass are hoping kids like Dawoud will take lessons from the soccer field into the classroom, and from the classroom, to whatever room they call home.

“For the time they’re out here you can see that pure joy and peace,” Coach Glass said. "Even a little hope that things are going to get better.”

“I’m so glad I came to America,” Dawoud said. “Here I have everything.”