GOAL! Soccer Without Borders helps refugee realize his dreams
Heman Rai runs towards his future with the speed of a Greyhound
“When I was small, my father used to tell stories of scientists, like Albert Einstein, who changed the world. If someone asked me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I used to say ‘a scientist,’ but I knew that was impossible because I lived in a refugee camp.” —Heman Rai, ’17
Growing up in a refugee camp in Nepal, Heman Rai, ’17, could only find two ways to fill his time: studying and playing soccer. He threw himself into both.
When he was in fifth grade, his parents learned that the United States would be resettling 60,000 Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal. Rai’s parents had been forced to leave Bhutan for Nepal in 1992 when the ethnic cleansing in the South Asian country made it unsafe for them to stay.
They saw an opportunity to begin a new life for themselves—but especially for their children—in the United States. They applied through the International Organization for Migration and were able to move to the U.S. in September 2008.
As his family settled in a community of refugees in Baltimore City, Rai kept studying and playing soccer. And it was then that Rai encountered Soccer Without Borders (SWB), an organization that helps refugee, asylee, and immigrant youth find opportunities to develop their English language, teamwork, academic success, and cross-cultural skills through athletics and academics.
SWB was a natural fit for this soccer player from Nepal.
Through the program and his own efforts, Rai learned English and benefited from tutoring for his schoolwork. On the soccer field he found friends from dozens of countries. As a student at Baltimore’s Digital Harbor High School, he competed on the varsity soccer and wrestling teams, joined after-school clubs, and took Advanced Placement courses.
He even held a part-time job at Under Armour, where his parents also work in packaging, to help support his family.
His hard work—and the support of the staff and volunteers of SWB—paid off. This fall he begins his college career as a first-year student at Loyola University Maryland.
He isn’t just the first member of his family to attend college; he is the first Nepali-Bhutanese refugee from Baltimore to attend a four-year university, so he has a whole community celebrating his success.
“I was lucky to get help from a lot of people,” he said. And they are so proud of him.
When Rai visited campus with his parents one day this summer, he was nervous about beginning college.
“There are going to be people from all over the place,” he said. “This is going to be like high school where I didn’t know anyone.”
“On Sept. 18, 2008, our time came to leave. I was sad to leave friends, relatives, and the place I lived for 13 years. The hardest thing was to say goodbye. On Sept. 24, 2008, we arrived in the United States. I remember getting off the plane at BWI Airport. My sister and I had lost weight, and my parents’ faces were so tired. We didn’t know where the exit was. A tall, white man with his hat in his hand (who, I realize now, was the pilot) showed us the way out from the plane and where to get our bags. Our caseworker was waiting for us and introduced himself in Nepali.”
After all the changes Rai has experienced, his nerves as he begins college are understandable. However, he does know people at Loyola. Because Loyola has a partnership with SWB, Rai has met several Loyola students over the years, as well as Loyola’s head coach of the men’s soccer team, Mark Mettrick, and assistant coaches Matt Dwyer and Bryan Harkin.
Almost since the founding of SWB, Loyola students have volunteered with SWB, helping the students get the academic and social support they need as their families establish their new lives in Baltimore. Mettrick, Dwyer, Harkin, and their men’s soccer players have run several soccer sessions for the children participating in the program.
Loyola’s relationship with SWB grew out of a service-learning initiative Elizabeth Schmidt, Ph.D., professor of history, had organized for her students to tutor local refugees from Africa. By fall 2006 her students were volunteering through Baltimore City Community College’s Refugee Youth Project (RYP), which subsequently became a Loyola partner.
One of Schmidt’s first student volunteers for RYP, Erin McDermott, ’10, went on to pursue a Master’s in Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, where she met Jill Pardini, executive director and founder of Soccer Without Borders-Baltimore. In December 2011 McDermott introduced Schmidt and Pardini and they connected with Loyola’s Center for Community Service and Justice (CCSJ).
“CCSJ is this wonderful place,” Schmidt said. CCSJ made SWB a community partner in January 2012 and students—and later the men’s soccer team—started serving the organization. In June the Loyola University Maryland Men’s Soccer program and CCSJ were honored with the Soccer Without Borders Baltimore Community Partner of the Year Award.
“Loyola’s been outstanding,” said Pardini, who appreciates that the Loyola student volunteers—including those on the men’s soccer team—also come to SWB games to support players. “It’s an interesting thing. You have these very well-recognized coaches coming out and playing on a uneven field in East Baltimore, and the kids have a blast with them. I can remember the first time the coaches came out, and they were just doing what they always do. These guys have coached all over the world.”
Before starting SWB in Baltimore, Pardini had no intentions of staying in the United States. She was planning to go abroad. But as an intern for the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees, part of the State of Maryland’s Department of Human Resources, she realized the need for support for the large international population in Baltimore.
“I was just looking at a bunch of Excel spreadsheets and data, and it dawned on me that I didn’t need to go overseas to do international work,” said Pardini.
She started thinking. She knew the school attrition rate for boys was higher than for girls, and she had a soccer ball. She just needed a place where they could play.
“I met with the adult male leaders of all of these communities. All of them were looking at me like ‘What is this girl going to do?’” she recalled. They agreed to let their sons participate.
The first day she biked to the field from her internship, not sure what to expect. “I had one soccer ball in my backpack, and I thought I’ll wait here for 15 minutes and nobody’s going to come,” she said. She was wrong. Sixty-two children—from age 5 to into their 20s—came.
Since then the program has grown to include middle and high school students from a number of countries, including Cameroon, Eritrea, Somalia, Rwanda, Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Mexico, Sudan, Guinea, and Iraq—as well as Bhutan and Nepal.
Pardini realized the boys needed more help academically, so she added resources and took an active role in supporting them through school.
“I used to play soccer like this in back in Nepal with my cousins. Now I play soccer with friends from all over the world. We understand each other because we love soccer. We have similar backgrounds: some friends are like me, born in a refugee camp, some are war refugees, and some came looking for asylum. Four years ago, I never thought I would have friends from different countries, speak English, live in the United States, and have an opportunity to attend college in America.”
Last year the first SWB participant started college at Howard County Community College. This fall three of the students—including Rai—are beginning college.
Loyola was at the top of Rai’s list, especially once he realized the scholarship money—both from Loyola and other organizations in Baltimore, thanks to outreach on SWB’s part—was there. That made his decision easy.
“Loyola became this amazing aspiration for these guys,” Schmidt said. “They came for the college tour in the spring, and they came to CCSJ for a special session. The Loyola men’s players were people they could look up to.”
Being able to attend a four-year college is the fulfillment of a dream for Rai—and not his alone, but his parents’ dream, as well. When he was 12, they paid 1,100 rupees to get him a basic computer and typing class. For his 16th birthday they sold one of the two family cars to buy him a computer.
As a Loyola student, he is living on campus—his father wants him to have the full college experience and focus on his studies—where he plans to study engineering, computer science, or biology. His parents, meanwhile, have moved out of the city to Dundalk, Md., and are saving to buy a house. They are both happy to have jobs, especially since it took them eight months after their arrival to find work.
“These parents have already been through a lot. They’re the ones who have the more poignant memories of what they have left. Then they have the really tough choices. Are we going to stay in this intermediary country or take this huge risk?” Pardini said. “When they get here, they get put in the tough neighborhoods and their kids are getting bullied at the bus stop, or they see the litter, and these parents are doing 12-hour shifts, and they don’t see their kids. This isn’t about their own health and well-being. This is about their kids. This is what they value. This is what they’re going to pour their heart and soul into.”
For the Rai family, as their son begins his college career at Loyola, they will be cheering him on with pride.
I really relate to this expression: ‘It does not matter where you start, but what matters is where you will end.’ I didn’t start well, not because I chose this but because I was born in a difficult situation, but what I can do is work hard, keep my grades high, and get a college degree. I can be successful with a college degree and help my parents who work so hard, and others like me, who came to America as refugees, starting new lives. Despite the many challenges of resettlement, I have the opportunity to go to college and can become a scientist or anything else I dream of.