Six-thousand miles away from Richmond, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been fighting a civil war that has claimed around six million lives. It is stricken with death, famine, the presence of armed militias and tribal groups, along with vast mineral wealth and natural resources which continue to drive the conflict. Seven-thousand miles away in Afghanistan, after almost 16 years of war, the Taliban is once again reclaiming more vulnerable areas of the country and groups like the Islamic State are expanding their presence. There is no shortage of global events these days, which force people to flee their homes.
Currently, they’re an unprecedented 22 million people who are living as refugees worldwide and some of them have now been resettled in Richmond.
Families that came to the US to escape these wars and conflicts did so via resettlement programs like those sponsored by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an international non-governmental organization who has offices in both Richmond and Charlottesville.
The vetting process for refugees alone can be lengthy, averaging around 12-18 months; from applying to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to waiting for screening to be completed by multiple US agencies, including the Department for Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
However, for most families, the vetting process is only half the battle. Once resettled, these families face the same challenges most Americans struggle with on a daily basis: Searching for jobs, making rent, and covering day to day expenses, not to mention all of this is set against the backdrop of trying to understand a new country and culture in a strange city. And on top of these drawbacks, refugee families also have to worry about how their children will assimilate into their schools and neighborhoods.
This is where Refugee’s Exercise Academics and Leadership (R.E.A.L) comes into the picture and plays such a critical role for refugee families resettling in these communities.
R.E.A.L. is an after school sports program for refugee children started by Ashley Zehrt, a VCU graduate who majored in International Social Justice and has an undying love of soccer or better known to the rest of the world as ‘football’. It is held once a week on Wednesdays at 6 p.m at Harold Macon Ratcliffe Elementary School.
“Our mission is to use sports and education to empower youth for personal growth and community building,” said Zehrt.
On the busiest day, there have been upwards of 52 refugee children that have attended the after school program. These children come from families who were fleeing violence and poverty in places like Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and Afghanistan. Most are living in the apartment complex and neighborhood known as Stoney Ridge, which is within walking distance from where the sports program is held at Harold Macon Ratcliffe Elementary School in Henrico.
R.E.A.L was eventually implemented from an idea Zehrt developed during a graduate internship with ReEstablish Richmond and the IRC. ReEstablish Richmond’s Executive Director, Kate Ayers and Stephen Allen, the Richmond Site Coordinator of the IRC prompted Zerht to design, implement, and evaluate a refugee youth sports program.
“Ashley was doing an internship with us and the International Rescue Committee and Stephen said, ‘this is her [Ashley] kind of program. It is her dream to be apart of this so why don’t we both co-supervise Ashley so she can get this program going,” said Ayers, of ReEstablish Richmond. “As an organization, we were the group to get it started, but now as the partnership has continued, we’re just trying to support the program by finding financial support.”
Through Zerht’s genuine interest for soccer and helping others, the after-school sports program quickly gained momentum and was aided by Cool Springs Recreation Center. This partnership helped provide equipment and food so they could expand their reach to encompass more refugee children who have been re-settled in Richmond. “We’ll pull the van down the neighborhood and all of the kids will start running,” said Shane Standlick, a Cool Spring Recreational Center staff member.
Nonetheless, the process of starting a refugee sports program was not an easy task and comes with its own unique challenges. “Refugee children have a different culture and life experiences than their peers, so just trying to fit in and trying to do the cultural switching from home to school is one of the most difficult parts for these kids.”
Initially some of the children in R.E.A.L’s sports program were withdrawn, which is understandable given their experience and having to adapt to a foreign environment. However, the similarities between the children in the sports program are stressed, making it easier for them to connect with one another.
“These kids take care of each other, it’s been great to see them come to work together and befriend each other, even though they don’t speak the same language,” said Standlick.
In fact, only a day after the first R.E.A.L sports clinic, the teachers at Harold Macon Ratcliffe elementary noticed a dramatic shift in behavior by the refugee students. “The kids were in really good moods and would conversate about the program,” said Zehrt. “They even said the Afghani and Congolese kids would hold hands while walking down the hallways.”
Baseball seems to be the most popular sport as it gives all of the children a chance to participate with there being enough roles for everyone to engage in some capacity.
It’s not hard to see why the kids are so active in the sports program. Beyond the camaraderie the program provides and the safe space that is offered – some of whom have had traumatic experiences – the countries they come from have a long history of global sports. Both Afghanistan and Uganda have an Olympic Gold medal and when it comes to discussions about basketball you cannot bring up great defensive players without mentioning the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Dikembe Mutombo.
One of the younger Congolese girls went so far as to scream “basketball” ecstatically at the mere mention of the sport.
The sports program doesn’t stop on the field though. R.E.A.L has partnered with the Richmond Kickers and Flying Squirrels, allowing the children to see the sports they play in person, at the local stadiums.
“I went to a baseball game once and a soccer game, it was good, so good,”, said Mujtaba, a 15-year-old refugee from Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s most popular sports are soccer and cricket, both holdovers from the days of British colonialism.
“It was good and kind of fun,” said Alfred, a 12-year-old refugee from Rwanda when asked about going to local sporting events.
Communication is always one of the primary issues with families and children who resettle as refugees in anywhere in the world, but especially in the US. A lot of the children are so young that translating their needs creates a challenging situation. Yet sports creates an environment where the kids have to learn basic commands in order to play the game effectively, which also accelerates their understanding of the English language.
“For the first week of the camp we had a Dari translator and the last day we had one for the Congolese kids. They [the kids] understood the universal language of soccer…and the direction they understood,” said Zehrt. “But there have definitely been moments when there’s a conflict and they couldn’t communicate that with us through words so it was really difficult for us and their teachers.”
Though the focus may be on supporting these kids through sports, the goal is to expand the program and start offering English as a Second Language (ESL) training.
“Starting in the middle of September we’ll be starting an ESL and tutoring program,” said Standlick. “We’ll be incorporating that into the sports camp with 20 minutes of reading and then roll into the continuation of playing sports with the kids.”
During the previous camp in the spring, there were also three American siblings who attended. The oldest ended the program with a changed perspective on his teammates.
“The oldest took away the biggest thing, he viewed them [refugees] completely differently than he first had, he had a very negative [view] of people from different cultures and now he is best friends with everyone. It just incredible to see this growth from both sides.”
Stereotypes shattered, language and social skills obtained and forging bonds that may last a lifetime, R.E.A.L has made these young refugees feel right at home.
“These kids have been through so much, just to see them in an area where they have fun and be kids,” said Standlick. “It is so important for them to just be kids.”
Donations to R.E.A.L can be made at their GoFundme.
*Photos by Landon Shroder