It's not surprising the three-dozen or so players on the Withrow High School soccer team have been glued to their televisions throughout the 2014 World Cup, cheering for team USA.
But there is one thing that sets them apart. Very few are citizens of the United States.
“Of the 37 players who've signed up to play soccer in May, only 1 of the 37 was born an American, so 36 of 37 are international,” said Tyler Barrott, who is entering his first full season at the helm of the Tigers at just 23 years old.
As of early July, the Tigers soccer team is made up of refugees from 15 different countries in Latin America, Africa and North America. The girls’ team doesn't have a single U.S.-born player, Barrott said.
“They’ve had to flee the Malian Civil War, Civil War and General Unrest in Cote D'Ivoire, the Congolese Civil War, and the genocides and civil wars in Burundi and Rwanda, to name a few."
He said those numbers could increase before the start of the upcoming season.
“I'd guess we'd pick up four or five more players over the summer around August, as many families move from abroad to the U.S. during that time.”
There are some 25,000 refugees who call Greater Cincinnati home. They come from places such as Bhutan, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Russia and Iraq after experiencing severe persecution in their homeland.
Barrott said the refugees began arriving in larger numbers in the late 90s and early 2000s, because of various factors including cost of living and relatives already residing in the region.
“Many of these countries are poor, war-torn, and entirely dysfunctional,” said Barrott who calls his club "Les Tigres Indomitables" in honor of the Hyde Park school's mascot and and an homage to the great Cameroonian team of the 1990 World Cup known as "Les Liones Indomitables."
That was the first African team to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup and many African nations use a similar moniker today.
“One of the players, Alkaly Touré, arrived in the U.S. in August 2013 from Senegal,” according to Barrott, who described a trek that was anything but a simple plane ride across the Atlantic Ocean.
Before even arriving in the Queen City, Touré and his family had to flee from Burundi (genocide and civil war), to Congo (where a civil war soon commenced), to Mali. After a short time there, the family had to leave for Senegal due to civil unrest. Only then was the family able to make its way to the U.S.
“His story is similar to a number of our players who have been shuffled around Africa, spending a significant portion of their childhood in refugee camps or temporary housing,” Barrott said.
Since the program was inaugurated in 2002, the Withrow soccer team has mostly consisted of international students. Providing them with a chance to play “the world’s game” was a way for them to bond with their fellow students, grow comfortable in their new surroundings and start to “feel at home.”
"In the early 2000s, Withrow was split into an International High School and University High School… and the team was created to give these boys a chance to play the sport they’ve loved their whole lives, no matter where they lived,” recalled Barrott, a Turpin grad.
The addition of Withrow International saw the majority of ESL resources and personnel equipped to work with international students centered at the Madison Road facility. While the high schools merged back together that infrastructure still remains.
Now, most of the refugee students, particularly those on the soccer team, reside with their families in the neighborhoods immediately to the west of the city – Fairmont, Westwood, Price Hill and Millvale. And soccer helps those places feel a little more like home.
“From learning English to making friends, Withrow and its soccer program have made an immeasurable impact in Cincinnati's refugee community,” said Barrott.
“Soccer has made me a better person and an optimist,” said Senegal native Sileye Fall, a midfielder.
Baboucar Gai echoed those sentiments.
“Playing soccer has made me a better person, made me have a good resume and experience, and it helps me keep my grades up,” said the forward from The Gambia, West Africa. “Soccer is just the way I live my life.”
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