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Soccer brings these immigrants to unexpected places - Global Citizen

Sept. 13, 2015

Last Saturday I caught a ride on the 4 train to an ordinary park in the Bronx, where some extraordinary things are happening.

It’s where Elvis Garcia, a Migration Counselor for Catholic Charities, started a soccer league for unaccompanied minors, teens who migrated from Central America without a parent or guardian. Most of the players fled countries plagued by gang violence. Some spent days in detention centers at the US border after weeks of dangerous travel by bus, train and foot. The majority have spent hours and hours sitting in immigration court.

And now they are going to meet the Pope.

“These kids have been through so much,” Garcia said. “For them to have an opportunity like this is just incredible.”

For those of you who missed the initial hype, Pope Francis is making his first trip to the US later this month. It’s going to be a whirlwind few days during which the Pope will address a joint session of Congress, speak at the UN General Assembly, hold a mass at Madison Square Garden, and bless 150 migrants (including a few members of the soccer league). Throughout the visit, the Pope’s expected to emphasize immigration reform and service to the world’s poor. His decision to meet with undocumented migrants is just one part of this message.

Cristian Contreras is one of the kids Pope Francis will meet. Originally from San Pedro Sula, Honduras (a city once called the “murder capital of the world”), Contreras left for the US with his sister after a gang attempted to recruit him. He is now legally represented by Catholic Charities and has been playing on the soccer team since its founding one year ago.  

“I will ask [Pope Francis] to pray for the violence to end in my country,” Contreras said, “and for opportunities for all of the immigrants living in the United States.”

When I first arrive at the soccer field, a small patch of grass just a few blocks north of Yankee Stadium, Contreras is practicing in the goal. Two kids stretch on the sidelines, a few others show off their rainbow kicks, a Daddy Yankee song blasts from a cell phone. Despite all they have gone through, and their still-precarious legal situation, the players minds are on the game.

It’s precisely why Garcia started the league.

A former undocumented migrant from Honduras himself, Garcia is keenly aware of the challenges these kids faced when they first arrived in the US. Through his work at Catholic Charities, he runs an orientation to prepare migrants before their immigration court hearings and helps them find pro-bono legal representation. After weeks of speaking with people at court it was clear that kids needed an outlet, a way to get used to life in New York and take their minds off the stress of court hearings. From there the soccer league was born. When Catholic Charities learned the Pope wanted to meet with migrants during his trip, unaccompanied minors from the team was a natural choice.

The “unaccompanied minors crisis,” as the surge of young migrants from Central America to the US was dubbed by mainstream media, dominated headlines for much of last year. Over 60,000 children were apprehended at the US border in 2014, resulting in what President Barack Obama called an “urgent humanitarian crisis.” The majority of the children, like Contreras, were escaping high levels of crime, delinquency and gang activity in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Even though many of their lives are still in limbo and their countries’ still struggle with extreme gang violence, as the months have worn on and the world’s attention has turned to Europe’s migrant crisis, news coverage of the situation has precipitously dropped.

Pope Francis’ visit might help change that. Since the start of the unaccompanied migrant crisis the Pope has been vocal about protecting the rights of immigrants. Last year, when the US was debating how to handle the influx at the border, Francis said young migrants must be “welcomed and protected.” His stance has a lot to do with his background. Born and raised in Buenos Aires and a native Spanish-speaker, Francis is the first Pope from Latin America. Before his big move to the Vatican, Francis (then Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was known for his work in slum communities.

“He is a different kind of Pope,” Garcia said. “We hope that when he speaks to President Obama he will encourage a more welcoming attitude towards immigrants.”

Being from Argentina, Francis also happens to be a major soccer fan.

“A lot of the kids have been doing their homework,” Garcia said. “To find out what team he roots for.”

If you’re wondering, it’s San Lorenzo.

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