As the sun sets on a Friday evening, two teams of teenage soccer players run the lengths of a field in Thompson Park. It’s their last game of the season.
One of the teams, a youth development team for the Columbus Crew, is particularly competitive: They’re composed nearly entirely of 17-year-olds vying for college scholarships and hoping for contracts with the pros.
Of its 13 players, nearly half are African refugees – one of Columbus’ fastest growing populations. And at a time when they’re learning to adapt to life in an unfamiliar country, players say that soccer provides a sense of familiarity.
“In Somalia, over there, you play on the beach, you play without shoes,” says Mohamed Sheik, a team member. “It was fun. We played, and after we finished, we swim and then we go home.”
Sheik, who’s fasting for Ramadan, hasn’t had anything to eat or drink since dawn.
“I just feel tired,” he says.
But hunger and exhaustion don’t stop Sheik from playing soccer, just as the civil war in Somalia never stopped him when he was growing up.
“There’s some group called Al-Shabaab, they’re terrorists. They came to our house. They destroy, they kill. They’re not human,” Sheik says. “But still I was playing. My mom, she would say, ‘Don’t go out, they’ll kill you,’ but I used to go and play soccer still.”
Sheik’s love for soccer stayed with him, even during a four-year period when his family lived in India. Now that he’s in the United States, he says he wants to go all the way to the pros.
“I love soccer more than everything,” Sheik says. “It’s not just a game, soccer.”
Sheik’s teammate Hamdi Mohamed is also from Somalia, though his family left the country when he was still a toddler.
Mohamed and his family now live in an apartment near Easton. The night I visited, his home was filled with the aroma of various spices from the meal Mohamed cooked for his younger sisters.
Mohamed says it’s a much easier life than the years he spent in a refugee camp in Djibouti.
“Life is rough. There’s a lot of people. Food is not enough there. It’s hot, slow water, slow food,” Mohamed says. “People want everything. You just keep hustling to live your life.”
Instead of going to school, Mohamed spent his days studying the Koran, walking miles for access to clean water, and, of course, playing soccer.
“Back there, what we used to do if the soccer ball popped, even though it was fake, what you do was bring your socks, you put a lot of trash in it,” Mohamed says. “You use two rocks as a goal. There were rocks and it was dusty, but that’s how we learned to play, without no shoes even.”
His skill with the soccer ball, Mohamed says, made his move to the U.S. that much easier.
“Even though I didn’t know how to speak (English), soccer put me and the other kids together,” he says.
Like Sheik, Mohamed says he wants to play professional soccer so he can earn enough money to help his mother and others who have helped him.
Back at Thompson Park, the team’s coach, Fabio Patterson, shouts instructions to his players running down the field. Like much of his team, Patterson spent his early years abroad but came to the United States when he was adopted.
“I started when I was four in Brazil,” Patterson says. “I lived in a favela, it’s called — it’s like a rough neighborhood where drug lords are in charge. We were trying to basically survive, and I just started playing soccer. I played six, seven, eight hours a day.”
Just like soccer did for him, Patterson says the sport bridges cultural gaps for his players.
“This team — they’re a family,” he says. “They accept that one another are different.”
As the game ends, players from both teams exchange high fives. Though the team of refugees end their season on a loss, for Mohamed, he’s already won.
“I always told myself when I was back in Africa, I will one day play a good team against a good team,” Mohamed says. “I had a big dream and step by step, now it’s coming (true), step by step.”