Growing up in Sudan soccer was at the center of my life. I loved the game so much that I even made the national team. Soccer got me through some of my most difficult moments, including when I had to flee my home after the second civil war and settle at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
I wasn’t sure what came next or how long I would be in Dadaab. Fortunately, Lutheran Social Services sponsored me and helped in my resettlement in Jacksonville, Florida alongside other refugees. As part of the sponsorship, they provided a home for me to sleep in, medical care for those who needed to see a doctor and a job so that I could take care of myself. I am just one of the millions of people they have helped around the globe.
It wasn’t easy. After arriving in Jacksonville in 1995, I immediately went to work to support myself. I didn’t have time to socialize much and I didn’t understand American sports. It wasn’t long before I sought to play soccer once again and find a community in my pastimes. I found six other Sudanese refugees who loved soccer as much as me—and soon after we were able to form a team with Somali, Ethiopian, Liberian, Libyan and Iraqi refugees who loved the game just as much. We called ourselves the Eagles Stars.
The only language that connected us was soccer. We were all displaced from our homes for different reasons, but we all came together as one community. As the immigrant and refugee community in Jacksonville grew we saw more soccer teams pop up. And, as people moved to new cities for other opportunities or to be closer to their families, some teams disbanded. The Eagles Stars remained standing, ready to welcome challenges from newer teams and traveling to Georgia and North Carolina to compete in tournaments.
But, it wasn’t only about the matches. The game brought together a community of people forced to start their lives far from their birthplaces. I was able to visit with many families and was humbled by their strength and resilience. Every family I met with worked hard to better themselves, to provide and to contribute to their communities. There was a sense of gratefulness for the opportunities in America, for the chance to contribute to the history, culture and economy.
Unfortunately, the political climate today is much different than it was when I arrived. Today, many in our community, including myself, are feeling insecure about our refugee status. I arrived 23 years ago, and since then have been able to naturalize. That’s not the case for many of my loved ones. The last three Presidents have treated refugees with dignity and respect — they’ve treated us like we belong, like Americans. The Trump administration, however, is destroying the fabric that holds refugee families together.
It is in these trying times, I reflect on the journey we’ve all had as refugees: fleeing our homelands and starting over. I am reminded of the resilience of our community, I know the fight to bring people together, and end divisive and unjust policies continues.
Every day I urge those refugees who have become citizens to speak up and voice their concerns. I urge them to vote for leaders who reflect our values, those who believe in bringing us together and working as a team, just as the Eagles Stars do. My hope is that all Americans can see the beauty and strength of refugee communities. It is my hope that we can all come together and create a nation that values us all, and creates opportunities for us all to thrive.