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Ohio Town Welcomes Refugees, Puts Together A Good Soccer Team

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Ohio Town Welcomes Refugees, Puts Together A Good Soccer Team

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Ohio Town Welcomes Refugees, Puts Together A Good Soccer Team

Ohio Town Welcomes Refugees, Puts Together A Good Soccer Team

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A high school soccer team in Akron, Ohio, seems far away from the world's migrant crisis. That team is made up of refugees, and while they don't speak the same language, the team is getting noticed.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We introduce you now to a high school soccer team in Akron, Ohio.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

They come to our attention because they are a team of refugees. They come from families that fled global hotspots.

INSKEEP: And if they had a tough time getting to Ohio, they are also pretty tough on the field. From member station WKSU, M.L. Schultze reports.

M.L. SCHULTZE, BYLINE: One of the largest migrations of refugees to the United States in the last decade has gone largely unnoticed on the national stage but not in Akron. In 2006, the Bush administration broke a logjam over the fate of 100,000 people who had been forced by the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan across the border into what became sprawling U.N. refugee camps in Nepal. Many remained there for a generation. The U.S. said it would accept as many as 60,000 of them. And over the next eight years, that brought 5,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese here to Michael Kane's Akron neighborhood.

MICHAEL KANE: The charisma, the spirit, the happiness that myself and everyone that is around this team experiences is just astounding.

SCHULTZE: Kane coaches soccer at North High School. And his team, which barely had enough kids for a single varsity squad a decade ago, now has some 40 players speaking at least five languages. That's because the Nepalis are not the only refugees on this team. The International Institute of Akron has partnered in resettlement efforts for decades. So North High School, now the most diverse school in Ohio, includes Burmese, Iraqi, Karen and other kids whose families have fled the world's political hot spots. Boo Le, named for the hospital in the camp on the Thai-Burmese border where he was born, says the kids on the team get along.

BOO LE: Soccer is simple. If you know how to play, you play. You don't have to say a lot. I can feel it. Like, it's in my heart.

SCHULTZE: Boo Le arrived here when he was 8 but played soccer long before.

LE: It was so rare to see ball in my country. We just, like, make ball with a bag and stuff.

SCHULTZE: So these kids arrive with some unique ball-handling skills. The school's athletic director, Carrie Stewart, says other skills can be coached.

JON STEWART: I liken it to street basketball. You'll see kids playing street basketball at times. And sometimes that doesn't translate to the basketball floor because it takes a different skill set.

SCHULTZE: The team doesn't have a home soccer field and practices on a patch of weeds that used to be a softball field. Most of the equipment they wear was donated by other teams or the community. Still, the team made it to the city series championship game last year and hopes to return this year. It started this season 1-1-1, with the loss to a suburban soccer behemoth.

Meg Dhimal, also known as Monaj, is a senior defenseman who learned the rudimentary game in a Nepali camp before he came to Akron at age 12. He missed a key practice before the first game this year because he was helping his brother take a citizenship test. Monaj has his own ambitious career plan.

MEG DHIMAL: I want to become a doctor, like a family physician or a neurosurgeon.

SCHULTZE: Monaj says Coach Kane does not care just about soccer.

DHIMAL: We also talk about, like, life, like you need to work hard. Not everybody is going to be a great soccer player, so you guys need to focus on education as well as soccer.

MYNA SHAHATA: Goal. North scored.

SCHULTZE: Myna Shahata came here with his brother, David, from Egypt in the '80s. Since most of the families of the North High School players don't drive, the brothers often make up half of the cheering section when the team travels.

SHAHATA: The world comes together with the ball.

SCHULTZE: And Akron is preparing for the next wave of refugees with a lesson learned - they'll likely come from a place with a passion for the game even when it's played with plastic bags and soda cans. For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze.

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