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Youth soccer unites African community in New Westminster

New Westminster resident Comfort Sam sits on a blanket beside the Moody Park soccer field, talking with Grace Ikwuegbu, who has come out from Port Coquitlam.

New Westminster resident Comfort Sam sits on a blanket beside the Moody Park soccer field, talking with Grace Ikwuegbu, who has come out from Port Coquitlam.

Sam says her English isn’t very good, but she talks to Ikwuegbu in English anyway because Ikwuegbu is from Nigeria, and Sam is from Ghana, and English is the only language they share.

What’s brought them together this Monday night is soccer.

Their two five-year-old sons are in their first year at the Africa United FC Youth Training Centre, a summer soccer program started in New West three years ago.

With participation doubling every year, the program has quickly become a regular meeting place for people who’ve come to Canada from all parts of Africa – some recently, some decades ago.

Besides Ikwuegbu, Sam says she has met people here from Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and many other Africa nations, and she says that’s good for her Canadian-born son.

“The children, sometime they think in Africa is just one country, so now they know it’s different country, different language,” she says.

She also likes that the program gives her son a chance to see a little more colour than he’s used to in Canada.

“They know that they have some people like him here, too, because, my son, it’s difficult sometimes,” Sam says.  “They don’t see much in their own colour.”

“There’s lots of colour here,” adds Ikwuegbu with a laugh.

That soccer is the game of choice for the African club is a given for the two moms.

“We believe that soccer is in our genes,” Sam says. “Hockey is not us.”

Justus Mirembe, the New West resident who started the youth training centre, agrees.

“As an African community, soccer is our game,” he says.

For newcomers, he says, the sport is a source of unity, bringing together members of a diverse African community and helping them connect to their new country.

“Everybody, we’re all coming from different countries, different issues that brought us here,” Mirembe says. “Some come as refugees; some come as skilled workers. Whichever way you come in, when you get on that field, everybody’s a friend. Soccer breaks that barrier.”

When Mirembe arrived in Canada from Uganda 15 years ago, however, there was no Africa United FC United.

The club was started five years ago by the Surrey-headquartered African Canadian Soccer and Cultural Association, which has put on an all-Africa soccer tournament for 21 years.

(This year’s tournament, featuring 28 youth and adult teams representing a host of African nations, runs Aug. 7 to 9 at the Burnaby Lake Sports Complex East.)

When Mirembe came to Canada, the association focused mostly on the annual tournament and connecting newcomers to the different soccer clubs in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.

The African community didn’t have the numbers then to form its own club, Mirembe says, but that has changed over the years, and Africa United FC now gives him and others from the continent a chance to play with members of their own community outside of the annual tournament.

“I’ve enjoyed that because I’ve got a platform to showcase my talent with my brothers,” Mirembe says.

His three sons now have the same opportunity, thanks to their dad.

Three years ago he started Africa United FC’s youth program.

“We started with about 12 kids, and half of those were my kids’ friends,” Mirembe says, laughing. “They started inviting their friends from school, and, before you know it, last year we had about 80 kids, and then this year it just blew up. We doubled the numbers.”

He chose New West, he said, partly because he lives here and partly because of the city’s burgeoning African community.

“Being in New West, you don’t walk more than five minutes before you see an African person,” he says.  “You know how the East Indians populate Surrey? … New West, I would say, is African in terms of immigration.”

But kids don’t have to be African to play with Africa United.

About 95 per cent of the youth training centre’s participants this summer are immigrants, according to Mirembe, but their families are from places like Afghanistan and Asia, as well as Africa.

Through soccer, Mirembe says, he has seen them gain confidence and vital communication skills.

“When we started in April, there were maybe five kids that could not even say ‘hello,’” he says. “They would come in; they were very shy. But now they’re like live butterflies.”

One draw for newcomer parents struggling to make ends meet is the cost.

For two months of training and games, as well as a training jersey and team jacket, parents pay just $30 per child, thanks to Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program, which donates $100 per player to the program.

Kids don’t have to have all kinds of soccer skills and experience before they join either.

“Some of them have never kicked a ball in their lives and some of them just want to play but they don’t have the capacity to afford the clubs,” Mirembe says. “It’s a community program, so we’ve got people that play at the highest level and we’ve got kids at the beginner level. Everybody that comes in we try to accommodate them depending on their level.”

With rapid expansion over three years, the program is bursting at the seams and could use more community support, according to its founder.

Moody Park and the grass fields by Mercer Stadium, which his club has been using for free, can’t accommodate any more growth, and the program has had to turn families away this year.

In order to meet demand, Mirembe says, the practice sessions will have to move to a larger venue next year, possibly in Queen’s Park, but those fields aren’t free.

It’s a cause worth supporting, according to Mirembe.

Running in the spring and summer as it does, the program gives kids something to do when school’s out and other clubs have shut down for the season, he says.

“If you don’t get them engaged, they’re going to go smoke and do all these stupid things,” Mirembe says.

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