City of Hope soccer camp unites refugees

Saturday, July 5, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. CDT; updated 11:20 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2014
The City of Hope soccer camp has been held over the past four Saturdays on a field behind Broadway Christian Church. The camp brings together local refugees to learn new skills and form stronger ties with the community.

COLUMBIA — During the 12 years Columbia resident Taw Taw spent at a refugee camp on the border of Burma and Thailand, playing soccer with his three brothers was a daily occurrence.

In 1997, Taw and his family sought safety at the camp after fleeing Burma with bullets at their backs in fear of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the military government in power at the time.

Taw and his brothers came to Columbia from Burma, now known as Myanmar, in 2009. The violence of Burma is in his past, but soccer is not.

Taw, 21, laced up his cleats, along with many other refugees, to partake in City of Hope's soccer camp Saturday. The camp, which is open to anyone, started at 9 a.m. at the field behind Broadway Christian Church. 

Joe Belzer, the organization's pastor, said the Midwest is becoming a popular destination for refugees from many countries. The church started the camp in hopes of reaching out to them.

"Language is definitely a barrier, sometimes schooling is," Belzer said, referring to the struggles refugees face when coming to the United States. "So, (the camp) is a way to get them to come out and connect."

Refugees from many countries, including Burma, Russia and nations in Africa have participated in the camp over the past four weeks.

Although about 25 people attended Saturday's camp, some were still missed.

"It's really sad to hear about some of their families that are still overseas, and they're here now," said Belzer's 16-year-old daughter, Lydia.

The camp started with a group prayer, then coach Heath Immel led them through some striking drills. Immel said coaching the group has been rewarding.

"The language barrier is a challenge," he said, "but anyone can kick a ball."

Seeing the smiles on the participants' faces when they play makes coaching easy, he said.

Myles Major, who helped coach the camp, said the camp has allowed him to combine his favorite sport with the service to God.

"These kids need this with the world going on around them the way it is," Major said.

Belzer said he is glad the refugees now have a place to get together every Saturday, at least for the rest of July.

Although the campers started as strangers, Taw's younger brother Hla Yu said they have bonded over the past few weeks. "Now I like them," he added as he kicked the ball for a striking drill.

"I believe God really, really loves them," Belzer said. "But when you're really isolated like them, it's easy to feel like no one knows you're there."

Supervising editor is Joe Guszkowski.

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