This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s Passover campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis. Find out more.

Sports have a unique way of bringing people together across differences. No matter what someone’s background is, where they come from, or what they look like, all is equal on the playing field. Soccer Without Borders is a national and international organization that harnesses the power of soccer to engage young people and offer them opportunities for mentorship, academic stability, and fun. They also happen to work out of Repair the World’s Baltimore workspace – they’re such an inspiring group to share four walls with! Repair the World recently spoke to Soccer Without Borders Baltimore Director, Casey Thomas, about the growing population of refugees in Baltimore and how SWB is making a difference.

What was the inspiration behind Soccer Without Borders?
There are four Soccer Without Borders program locations in the US and two internationally – the first was in Oakland in 2006. Each one started out somewhat autonomous and then linked up with SWB nationally. In Baltimore we started in 2009 in response to a growing newcomer and refugee population here. There was a need for programming to engage high school boys in the community. Through conversations with the community, the founders identified an interest in soccer programming (the teens were always out playing soccer anyway) that went beyond the game and touched upon social-emotional learning, academic support, and support for integrating into the community.

What role has Baltimore played overall in welcoming and supporting refugees?
I’d say that Baltimore has been a national leader in terms of coming out in support of welcoming refugees and immigrants, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrants and Multicultural Affairs is a great first step. However, in order for individuals and families to truly experience a genuine welcome in this city, there is still significant work to be done, particularly in the realms of safety, employment, housing, education, and cultural exchange and integration.

What sort of programming does Soccer Without Borders do off the field?
We focus a lot on academic support in Baltimore. Many of our participants’ families left their homes and everything they knew in hopes of their kids having a better life. Educational opportunities are central to that decision, and the school system in Baltimore isn’t always able to provide the support the kids need. For example a lot of our kids receive just one English language learning session each day for 45 minutes. Imagine growing up in Syria and missing a couple of years of school because of the war. And now suddenly you’re in a 10th grade biology class in Baltimore, you don’t speak English, and you are expected to sink or swim. So academic support is a big part.

Also, because a lot of our kids learn English at a faster rate than their parents do, they end up taking on a lot of responsibilities in the home. They become defacto translators and handle things like bills. Soccer Without Borders provides them a space where they can just be a teenager and go through all the components of social-emotional learning that comes along with sports.

Where do your participants come from?
All over. It may have changed but until recently, the largest refugee population in Baltimore was Nepali refugees from Bhutan. Recently we’ve had an influx of families from Sudan, The Congo, and Eritrea – really all over.

What sort of cultural exchange work do you do?
We have a mentorship program that places volunteers in families’ homes. I actually started out as a mentor before I came on as an employee. We find that some cultural exchange happens naturally as the families share their foods and customs with volunteers. We also have programmed events throughout the year that highlight cultural diversity within the city and in the program. We have an event coming up in May called the Youth World Cup and International Showcase. It is linked with the end of season tournament for our middle school program. As part of it family committees will prepare food and cultural presentations. There will hopefully be dancing and singing, depending on how bold our kids our feeling.

Can you share a story of Soccer Without Borders’ impact?
We had one student who arrived in 4th grade and his first several years in the US were somewhat tumultuous. His first month at school, he got into a fistfight with other students because they teased him for wearing a pink shirt. He’s from Eritrea and didn’t understand pink’s associations. He just knew that the other students were laughing at him, and his reaction was to defend himself physically because he couldn’t do so verbally.

It took a couple of years, but by his third year in the program he had completely transformed. He realized that it is more gratifying to influence others in a positive way then a negative way. We wound up hiring him to be a counselor in our summer program and he was so reliable and mature, and such a great leader.

How can people get involved with Soccer Without Borders’ work in Baltimore?
We have a website where people can plug into opportunities, fill out a volunteer application, and go through volunteer training.

Find out more about Soccer Without Borders on their website or Facebook page.