Another Sunday of soccer kicked off outside the temporary migrant shelter at the repurposed Wadsworth Elementary School on April 30, with a few men juggling a yellow ball in a light drizzle. Otto Rodriguez and John Sianghio, the event organizers, didn’t expect much of a turnout because of the gloomy forecast.
Rodriguez, who runs soccer programs for unhoused youth and adults across the city as director of Street Soccer USA Chicago, handed out shirts and highlighter-green pinnies to the men slowly making their way out of the building and onto the soggy field.
“Last week we had around 25 people show up,” said Sianghio, who is the pastor of Cosmopolitan United Church and a teaching fellow in the Divinity School at U. of C. “This week, that seems unlikely.”
Sianghio first pitched the idea of a sports program to Rodriguez after more than 100 refugees and asylum seekers moved into Wadsworth, 6420 S. University Ave., in early February, which is just across the street from his home. Since the residents lacked recreational services, Sianghio figured that Rodriguez, with his knowledge and experience, was the right man to help him organize a weekly soccer game.
The two have known each other for the past 25 years, having gone to Timothy Christian High School in Elmhurst, Illinois. They became fast friends as the only two immigrant kids attending there at the time.
Men tried on cleats and athletic shirts donated by Sianghio’s church and then made their way onto the small pitch, which Rodriguez had drawn the four bounds of using a line marker given by the U. of C. Lab School.
The first game played was five-on-five, Colombians versus Venezuelans. Slick grass and sloppy passes meant players frequently went slipping and sliding on their butts as they attempted, but missed, corralling the ball. Enderson, one of the Venezuelans, nutmegged his defender, slipping the ball between the other’s legs as he zipped away towards the goal where Javier defended. A pass across the small goalmouth eluded Javier and a simple kick by Enderson’s teammate knocked the ball into goal: 1-0 Venezuela.
As the pace of play picked up on the first field, more and more people showed up from the surrounding Woodlawn community. Residents also came out from the shelter despite the inclement weather, so many that a second game of five-on-five started up.
Juan Wilson, a fifth year Ph.D. student in history at the U. of C., took time away from writing his dissertation to play soccer with the residents of Wadsworth. Thoroughly soaked from the rain and sweat after the last game petered out, he said, “It was amazing, we had a lot of fun. It’s a very open community, from the beginning it was like playing with longtime friends.”
For World Refugee Day, a team of Wadsworth residents will head north to the Edgewater neighborhood to compete in a citywide soccer tournament. The event, which will be held at Foster Beach Park on June 24 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will also have music, performances and food.
The soccer program is part of the volunteer-led Chicago 4 All initiative, a series of programs and events run by Woodlawn neighbors to help integrate the Wadsworth residents, all of whom are recent migrants from Latin America, into the community.
Paula Gean, who spearheaded the initiative in February, cheered on the multinational players on Sunday from the sidelines.
The initiative, she said, is about “bringing community members together, so that they can understand who these people are and vice versa.” Baseball games may start soon in addition to soccer now offered on Sundays, said Gean. If so, the name of the program may change from Soccer in the Park to “Deportivos en los Domingos” – Sunday Sports.
“Having people come in and deepen their exposure and build relationships through sports with these folks is at the heart of what we're trying to accomplish,” Sianghio said.
For those interested in donating shoes, clothes, or snacks for the Sunday participants, email email@example.com.
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