Refugees connecting to Canada through sport
Thursday, September 8, 2016

Ibrahim Mohammed only took up track and field after he came to Canada with his family as a refugee in 2013, but he’s been a top finisher in every Saskatchewan Marathon he’s ran since then.

In 2014 and 2015, he ran the 5k and finished first. This year, he finished the 10k first.

The 21-year-old has taken part in national championships and plans to take part in the Canadian National Cross Country Championship in Kingston in November, although the challenge has been to raise funds to go. He was born in Ethiopia, but his family later moved to Kenya.

“After school, we don’t have something to do, so we just come together and play soccer,” he says.

Life in Kenya was hard. He and his siblings lived with their mother, and she worked. Then they came to Canada.

“When I came here, I just started running,” he says.

It was almost by chance that he did. Mohammed and a friend went to the Saskatoon Soccer Centre to register, but they were asked to pay for their registration. They then took up running.

He trained with the Saskatoon Open Door Society’s youth marathon training group, and last year joined the Riversdale Track and Field club. He runs three days a week, as well as with his club.

He also takes part in cross-country meets.

“I actually don’t like that much marathons, I like track and field,” he says.

His focus now is on track and field; he’s unsure whether he’ll make soccer a part of his life again.

“I didn’t play for a long time, I started forgetting soccer. So, I’m just going to run,” he says.

Talk of soccer brings a broad smile to the face of Musab Ibrahim.

Nearly 13, Ibrahim is an Eritrean born in a refugee camp in Sudan. There, children didn’t have the resources to play soccer, so they would fashion soccer balls out of socks and plastic bags, his interpreter Mesmer Mesmer, later explains.

For the children in the refugee camps, it was a way to kill time.

“Back home in Sudan, I was playing it all the time with my friends and I (started) loving it,” Ibrahim says through Mesmer.

All he remembers of Sudan is playing soccer with other children from his neighbourhood against children from other neighbourhoods.

He arrived in Canada with his family at the age of 11. A resettlement counsellor referred him to the Saskatoon Open Door Society, where Mesmer works. Ibrahim and his two siblings have taken part in youth programs the organization offers for newcomers.

The Open Door Society has been introducing newcomers to sport for years, says executive director Ali Abukar, “because that is how youth are engaged easily, because youth like to participate in sports.”

The kids who participate in the athletics programs can learn new sports or continue in sports that are more familiar to them.

With the kids who want to continue to participate in a sport they always liked, the society supports them if they want to take steps toward becoming professional athletes, Abukar says. It can also introduce kids to “Canadian” sports, such as hockey, if they have no previous experience.

“To be in Canada, you have to participate also in the Canadian life. That is something that is also a major theme in our programming in terms of integration,” he says.

The summer youth program is the most popular of the society’s offerings, but a lot of youth stay on throughout the year. Students who have gone away to university have come back to volunteer, Abukar says.

Ibrahim’s enthusiasm hasn’t gone unnoticed. Mesmer says he’s always asking about soccer. He plays for the Saskatoon United Soccer Club Division 3 under-14 team, and last year, he won the Max Pedersen Memorial award for fair play.

“When I’m playing, I share with the whole team,” he says.

He plans to continue to play the beautiful game as he gets older, as it’s something he enjoys “very much.”

Older newcomers are also linked to soccer programs in Saskatoon through the Open Door Society.

Ahmed Mursid, 25, came to Canada about five and a half months ago as a refugee from Syria. He has been playing soccer since he was eight years old. In Syria, he played for a professional team named Alyarmoq and served as the team’s captain.

Outside of the sport, he earned a media studies diploma.

“Canada was a dream for everybody there and they used to hear that Canada is the best country ever. If you want to achieve something, if you want to be something in the future, you should go to a country like Canada so you can achieve what you want,” Mursid says through an interpreter, Mohammad Abushar.

When Mursid arrived, he received an unexpectedly warm welcome — and an opportunity to continue to play the sport he loves.

The Open Door Society contacted him through Abushar, co-ordinator of the men’s program and family support worker.

“I used to play for a long time there (Syria) and when the situation in Syria happened, we couldn’t play there. So, this is my opportunity and good chance to continue playing soccer,” Mursid says.

Abukar says he’s watched youth arrive and start programs in the winter and summer, and a year or two later they’re still participating.

“You see them grow. It is very … heartwarming. You see them do things you never saw them do before.”

He has his own personal connection to sport.

Abukar plays soccer recreationally and watches it. He talks with Ibrahim about his favourite team and player — Cristiano Ronaldo — and tells him about his own favourites.

“When I was growing up, I grew up with soccer. My oldest brother became a professional player and also became a coach. I also played when I was young. I competed in the third tier in my country,” Abukar says.

His team went on to qualify for Serie B.

“But I chose not to continue, because I had other important things to do in life. I chose not to compete professionally.”

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Source: Saskatoon Star Phoenix / Thia James