For refugees, Cincinnati — and soccer — to the rescue

The city of Cincinnati has welcomed thousands of refugees in the last few years. Yet as the first waves came — despite locals standing ready to help with everything from transportation to English lessons — the newcomers couldn’t always find the help they needed.

That’s why a nonprofit group established RefugeeConnect, a website that connects refugees with service providers. RefugeeConnect also offers scholarship programs and English classes. Burundi native Gerald Ndayishimiye, 19, will enter the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 2016 with the help of a RefugeeConnect scholarship.

The program was created by the Junior League of Cincinnati, part of a large association of women’s volunteer groups. In the last few years, RefugeeConnect has also sponsored soccer teams. Ndayishimiye says soccer helps reduce homesickness, because the sport “is something I used to play before moving to the U.S.”

“In meeting with local refugees, we found that soccer was a connector across groups from all over the world,” said Haley Elkins of the Junior League. “Soccer is universal and does not require players to speak the same language.”

RefugeeConnect isn’t just about connecting refugees to services, although that’s important, she said. It connects refugees to each other too. And as refugees become established, the program encourages them to help newer refugees to rebuild their lives.

Man running and smiling on sports field (© Dyah K. Miller/Arteologie)
A team gets ready for its soccer match on World Refugee Day in Cincinnati. (© Dyah K. Miller/Arteologie)

Its soccer program has proven so popular that RefugeeConnect now hosts a World Refugee Day tournament each year in June. Open to all ages and to newcomers as well as lifelong residents, the event fosters new friendships.

In 2016, 200 athletes — men and women — competed. They came from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, England, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritania, Mexico, Senegal, the U.S. and Zimbabwe. The tournament’s opening parade featured teams carrying the flags of their countries of origin. This year, its final ceremony awarded a team from Senegal with the winner’s trophy and tickets to a game featuring Cincinnati’s professional soccer team.

Twenty organizations held a fair nearby to highlight services to help refugees succeed in school and in business.

Group of soccer players standing together with soccer balls (© Dyah K. Miller/Arteologie)
Members of the Democratic Republic of the Congo team at Cincinnati’s tournament. (© Dyah K. Miller/Arteologie)

Burundi native Alexandre Merembo, 20, a student at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, said that in some places refugees might feel forgotten, but in Cincinnati, it’s a different story.