Soccer team gives immigrant students purpose, friendships, support

- When you find yourself in a country, both new and strange, within a city where your language draws the label of "outsider looking in," the struggle to fit in can be fierce for young people plopped into an urban American school where absolutely nothing feels familiar.

Failure to blend is real and all too frequent, barring a force to smooth the way. At a Houston Independent School District campus, the transformational tool is a simple ball.

"The common language is soccer," said Bellaire High School teacher Elizabeth 'Ibby' Baldercan. "Sometimes that's all we have."

Baldercan, a life-long "futbalista," recognized in these teens, freshly arrived from far-flung countries, a single commonality -- their passion for the world's most beloved sport.

"I thought let me start a club just for my kids," said Baldercan. "There's no club for them where no language is necessary to make friends and have a good time." 

The product of that aspiration can be seen most days on a makeshift pitch not far from campus, a place where young men from different parts of the globe set aside their studies and hone feints and footwork for the good of their bona fide team within the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC Meyerland League.

Practice attendance is prolific with squad members rarely missing a session.

Daniel Marin, a newcomer from Colombia, is quick to explain why.

"When I come to this country, I no have friends," said Marin. He does now with bonds forged on the soccer field.

Goiton Ghebrehiwot, an immigrant from violence-plagued Eritrea, said regardless of the cracks in communication, this game is their glue.

"Once you practice with them, play with them, you just get along easily," said Ghebrehiwot. "Soccer makes it easy." 

'Coach Ibby' the educator says the competitive camaraderie has thankfully spilled over into the classroom, with teammates gladly serving as tutors for those still struggling with English as a second language.

"One time, I snuck up on them and heard what they were saying and I heard one boy saying, 'No copying! You are not going to learn. You have to do it yourself,'" said Baldercan. "I thought this is what it's all about." 

Andreas Cortez, an immigrant from Mexico, is a team captain and club president, a responsibility he embraces, on and off this field.

"I see them like brothers," said Cortez. "When they need me, I am there for them."

It is leadership and caring, beyond Baldercan's grandest expectations.

"I think it's going to be a memory of the first time they felt that they really fit in, where they had a place for them, where they felt comfortable when they first got to the the United States," said Baldercan.

It is genuine virtue from derived from a simple formula -- a field, a ball and a bunch of boys just looking to belong.

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