This American city has a winning way of making refugees feel welcome.
It really is a beautiful game.
There's something amazing about Cincinnati.
It's nestled into the southwestern corner of Ohio, on the beautiful and historic Ohio River. It's the home of the Bengals, the Reds, the Cyclones, the Bearcats, and the American Sign Museum.
Like many larger cities in Ohio, it is also home to one of the biggest refugee populations in the country.
More than 25,000 refugees have made their homes in greater Cincinnati. There are large established populations from Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, along with smaller, newer refugee populations from Iraq, Somalia, Bhutan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, and Burma.
Their backgrounds are as diverse as they come, but their reasons for leaving their homelands are similar.
Some fled religious persecution. Others because of their race or nationality. Still others were attacked for their political views or social beliefs.
Whatever the reason, most of them left their homes quickly — bringing little or nothing with them — in search of a better life. As refugees, they went through the toughest screening process of any potential U.S. citizens, finally landing in Cincinnati.
While some groups like to sow fear around the "unknown" that accompanies refugees, there are organizations fighting hard to make them feel accepted and included — even loved — in their new communities.
One of those groups is Cincinnati's Junior League. For 95 years, this community organization has helped connect nonprofits in the community to the people who need their services the most.
More recently, they started Refugee Connect, a program that links up the 80 refugee-focused groups in greater Cincinnati to share learning and services so that the refugees they work with get the best help possible. Refugee Connect has scholarship programs and weekly classes teaching English and preparing refugees for their citizenship exams. But the program goes beyond teaching — it helps welcome refugees into the community.
Refugee Connect's newest tactic for connecting refugees in their community is as fun as it is simple: soccer.
"Soccer is a universal language — it's the connector," program director Robyn Steiner Lamonttold Upworthy. "It doesn't require people to speak the language to play, and everyone knows it."
While lots of Americans are more interested in football or baseball, soccer is the world's game. Aside from a ball, it requires no equipment. Anyone at any skill level can play. And unlike so many other sports, verbal communication isn't essential. For refugees, with their diverse backgrounds and sometimes limited English skills, it's the perfect game. It's also not a brand-new idea, particularly for Cincinnati.
After World War II, hundreds of European refugees settled in Cincinnati, including Al Miller, Werner Coppel, and Paul Heiman. Their shared experience in German concentration camps brought them together, but it was their love of soccer that truly united them. Their team, made up of refugees mostly from Europe, was its own community, helping members rebuild their lives in the United States after the war.
In honor of that same spirit of inclusiveness and community, Refugee Connect joined the Red Cross to organize the World Refugee Day Cup Soccer Tournament.
More than 200 people signed up to play on 16 co-ed teams. There were participants from 10 different countries, ranging in age from adult to youth, from lifelong residents of Cincinnati to newly arrived refugees, all united by their love of soccer and community.
The day started out with a Parade of Nations, where players carried the flags of their home countries, including Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Colombia, England, Kenya, Mauritania, Senegal, USA, Zimbabwe, and Congo.
Teams played hard all day, while an African drumming team kept the beat between matches.
In the end, Team Senegal beat Team Mauritania to win it all for the second year in a row.
Their prize was a commemorative trophy and tickets to see the local professional soccer team, FC Cincinnati, where they'd be recognized on the field before the match.
The Cincinnati Junior League wants their community to be the most welcoming in America for refugees. Soccer is just one way to get there.
To the refugees building a new life in America — or to those considering one — Robyn and her team have a clear message:
"We are here to welcome you as your begin the next chapter in your life, a chapter of freedom. You no longer need to flee; you get to decide how you will live your life. We will stay with you, help you navigate a new culture, and provide resources for your success wherever possible. We hope to learn from you and to connect you to your passions. Your success is our success as one community."