Ben Gucciardi is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.
As youth face the difficult realities of building a new life in the United States, the Soccer Without Borders (SWB) program I founded is a space they feel safe and respected. For many, the concept of classroom learning is foreign. But the sport of soccer, and the basic concept of play, provides a familiar platform for healthy learning and growth. Youth from different backgrounds find common ground on the soccer field and build cross-cultural relationships. The development of this social support system simultaneously empowers individuals and strengthens the community.
In my work with SWB, I have the opportunity to work with refugees like Take Hel Say, who arrived in Oakland, California at the age of fifteen speaking no English, having grown up in a refugee camp in Thailand. Originally from Burma, her family had fled civil war and persecution of her Karen ethnic group. When she stepped on to the field, something sparked in her: though she lacked soccer skills, she felt immediately comfortable, engaged and grateful for an opportunity to simply play. She invited friends to come along, and became a leader within her Karen and school communities. Now, five years later, Hel Say has graduated high school, is attending community college, and has joined Soccer Without Borders as a part-time coach for younger girls.
We are proud of the work we have done at Soccer Without Borders, but perhaps most proud that we have reached a point in the organization that young people like Hel Say are assuming formal leadership roles, and teaching us how to best serve newcomer communities.
Ben Gucciardi is the founder of Soccer Without Borders. He has a Master’s degree in Global Educational Leadership from Lehigh University.