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Child soldiers and the ruthless warlords of Liberia's civil wars still haunt Thompson Stephens. Immigration raids in Massachusetts and the recent coup in Honduras plague Walter Rodriguez. And the health of Vietnamese-American elders worries Mike Nguyen.
This weekend, though, they are soccer players, being united on the field by their immigrant experience.
Using the sport as the main attraction, advocates are staging a World Cup-style tournament this weekend in Lowell. They hope bringing together the area's diverse ethnic groups will help build better relationships among immigrant groups as they grapple with proposed reforms and cuts to health care.
Victoria Fahlberg, executive director of ONE Lowell, said the weekend is about soccer and fun — but the long-term benefits last well beyond the final whistle.
"What has happened is that as individual teams create relationships, they find out they can help each other and we can help them," she said.
The teams, organized to represent 16 countries from five continents, are made of recent immigrants and children of immigrants, refugees, naturalized citizens, and those in the United States with political asylum. Their fans dress in national colors, waving flags and singing songs in different languages.
Tournament vendors sell ethnic foods. Immigration lawyers also set up shop to talk about their services.
Fahlberg and ONE Lowell board members created the tournament three years ago as a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization that formed in 2001. The idea formed after organizers noticed different immigrant groups playing soccer around Lowell — a heavily immigrant city on the New Hampshire border — but rarely against each other.
"Immigrants are forced, in many ways, into the American society," Fahlberg said. "But they are not forced to reach out to each other, even though many of them have common needs and common goals."
Other cities with large immigrant communities host similar tournaments. A group in New York, for example, is holding a similar but unrelated tournament this weekend called "Copa NYC."
Rules of the ONE Lowell tournament are simple: 13 of the 20 players must be from the country of the team, or be children or grandchildren who are from that country. The winner gets $1,000 and a replica of the World Cup trophy.
Samuel Osei Bonsu, 38, of Lowell, coach of a team representing Ghana, said players look forward to the Lowell tournament all year. "It brings together different people, different races," Bonsu said. "And it brings out people from Ghana who live in the area to come out and support their team."
The first year, organizers "scratched and clawed" to persuade 16 teams to participate in an event attended by a couple of thousand fans and pulled in around $8,000. Last year, the competition attracted 3,000 people and raised $20,000.
This year, organizers were forced to put 12 teams on a waiting list. And for the first time, the tournament has four teams from Europe and a competitive U.S. team made up of recent college graduates who played Division I soccer.
Brian Ford, 22, captain of the U.S. team, said a lesser U.S. team participated last year and was blown away by the level of competition. To prepare this year, Ford said the new U.S. players, mainly from New Hampshire, have watched tape of the Brazilian national team and held intense practice drills.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam team has pulled players from all over New England who have played together for years, mainly in Asian-American theme tournaments around the country, said Nguyen, 33, of Lowell.
Other teams, like the one representing Cambodia, have recruited players from as far as Minnesota.
During a recent drawing to determine the schedule, players nervously watched as New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis drew team names. "Nobody wants to play Brazil first," said Stephens.
When Honduras was drawn to play in a group with Germany, Vietnam and Ghana, the Honduran players cheered and gave each other high-fives. So far, Brazil has been their roadblock in past tournaments.
Rodriguez, 35, said the competition helps Hondurans living in New England get their mind off problems and events back home. He estimated 200 Honduran come to support the team during the two-day competition.
"When we get on the field, we don't think about immigration, we don't think about raids, we don't think about the coup," Rodriguez said. "We think about soccer."
This program aired on August 1, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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