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Tourney lets refugees embrace national pride, erode barriers

Players sprinted after the ball in vigorous games of soccer much of Saturday at Buffalo's LaSalle Park.

All the while, several dozen people wearing soccer jerseys from countries around the world watched from the sidelines -- cheering when the ball found the net or groaning when play was whistled.

This wasn't typical soccer action. This was an international soccer tournament featuring 10 teams made up of refugees from countries around the world who now call Buffalo their home.

Consider this Buffalo's version of the World Cup.

Teams included players from Vietnam, Laos, Somalia, Liberia, Iraq, Bhutan, Sudan and the Congo, among others.

The BBBoyz -- made up mostly of Somalis -- took home first place in the tournament. Players and coaches said the event provided a fun and friendly atmosphere for members of the refugee community to come together and play the sport they love.

Last year alone, Buffalo welcomed about 1,600 refugees from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. An estimated 1,200 to 1,300 refugees will come to Buffalo in 2012.

The soccer tournament, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., was played on the park's two soccer fields as part of the third annual World Refugee Day, hosted by the Buffalo Immigrant and Refugee Empowerment Coalition (BIREC) and the YWCA of Western New York.

The final day of the celebration, featuring cultural dance, awards and authentic food, will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. in the YWCA branch at 1005 Grant St.

"It's really exciting for all communities to share in the experience," said Ali Kadhum, president of BIREC. "We hope that in the future we have more teams."

Th event has already grown. Only six teams participated in the first tournament in 2010.

The teams played two 25-minute halves in the round-robin tournament, which allowed every team to play at least two games.

The Delaware Soccer Club of Buffalo, which provided balls for the tournament, has a membership of 1,600 kids, many of them refugees.

"They're some of the most polite and coachable kids you'd ever meet," said Patrick Mann, president of the club. "They absolutely cherish the opportunity to play. You can just tell they're really into it."

Kenya native Omar Abdikadir, 27, was the captain on the first-place BBBoyz team. He said the tournament was full of friendly and quality competition. And he was confident heading into his team's semifinal matchup with one of the two Iraqi teams.

"I'm not going to let myself down," Abdikadir said.

Jama Ali, 25, coached the BBBoyz and said it was "great to see everybody play this sport."

Ali, who was born in Somalia and raised in Kenya, came to Buffalo on Aug. 11, 2004. He was 3 years old when he left his native country. "I can barely remember anything," he said.

Stories like Ali's weren't rare among the competitors. Everyone had a story on how they made it to Buffalo, and the tournament served as the outlet that let them come together.

"There's a lot of segregation in each community," said Kadhum, BIREC president and an Iraq native. "We want to break that barrier."

email: jharris@buffnews.com