By David Chanatry, The New York Reporting Project at Utica College
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In Utica’s Proctor Park last weekend, the sounds of sport filled the air. Despite the season, however, they weren’t the cracks of the bat associated with the national pastime. Instead, coming from fields set between a baseball diamond and basketball court were the kicks and whistles of what many call “the beautiful game.”
It was the sixth Redeemer Cup international soccer tournament, a sort of mini-World Cup in central New York. This year fifteen teams comprised of refugees and immigrants competed for the Cup. More than ten percent of the Utica’s population is made up of refugees
“We’ve got Somali Bantu, we’ve got east Africa, we’ve got Iraq. We’ve got two different Karen teams,” said Paul Schilling, a pastor of the Redeemer Church, which runs the tournament
Most of the players are from this city known for welcoming refugees. Schilling said the goal is for old and new Uticans to get to know their neighbors.
“Utica has over 25 different nationalities, some refugees, some immigrant, but they all know soccer,” he said. “So we thought that’s the common denominator.”
The players have embraced the idea, making new friends and getting reacquainted with old ones, said Jose Mendez, a Utican who was playing midfield for the El Salvador team.
“Soccer, or as we say football, brings people unites. That’s the beauty of it,” said mendez. “the Bosnian team we just faced, most of them were in high school with me.”
Kareem Hamad is a nursing student in Utica, by way of Iraq. He says he waits for the tournament every year.
“Its definitely beautiful the feeling I have” Hamad said. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I was so excited.”
The games were played all weekend long on four side by side fields. Balls occasionally bounced from one to another. Players hung out between games. Fans wandered from match to match. Many sat in bleachers under umbrellas to shield them from the sun.
Utica City Court judge Ralph Eannance was sitting right behind one goal.
“I have some friends playing on at least two different teams that I’ve gotten to know these past few years,” Eannance said. “I’m rooting for Iraq this game.”
A few rows back, Nan Han was pulling for the other side.
“I’m cheering for the Redeemer Burmese team,” she said.
Han is a senior at Utica’s Proctor High, and will head to college next fall. The tournament she says, reveals something about her adopted city.
“It tells me that we’re not afraid to be together. We’re not afraid of our differences,”Han said.
But this tournament was not all brotherly love. Make no mistake, on the field, these guys want to win, said Jose Mendez.
“It’s serious. People take it to the fullest, to the heart. This is some people’s …dinner. Know what I’m saying.”
Perhaps the coach of the Somali Bantu team best summed up the competitive nature of the tournament. .
“I really can’t talk right now. After the game you can interview me,” he said when approached for a comment. “Because my pressure is up!”
As one fan said, the ball is a circle so you never know who is going to win. This year the Iraq team beat the defending champion East Africa in the title game.