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Nanaimo’s Syrian newcomers get in the game

City’s soccer community extends welcome with Friendship Football
Danika Vogels and Khaled Alsalim play during the Friendship Football soccer event Friday at Merle Logan Field. (GREG SAKAKI/The News Bulletin)

A community event last week achieved its goal of bringing together new friends and teammates.

Friendship Football was held Friday at Merle Logan Field to connect Nanaimo’s Syrian refugee families with the city’s soccer community. A downpour and wind warnings didn’t put much of a damper on things, as about 30-40 Syrian kids participated and the adults played for hours.

Gunnar Myhrer, secretary with the Harbour City Football Club minor soccer association, said there was a “pretty magical” feel to the event.

“The biggest thing we noticed was just the kids interacting, sometimes without even words, just smiling and working together and it was a pretty neat way to meet other…” he said. “I just hope that this leads to further ways for [Syrian families] to get into the community, whether it’s through sport or other clubs.”

Minor soccer and the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society co-operated to put on Friday’s event. Syrian children, teens and adults were invited to join in for pickup games on a regular Harbour City FC training night. There was also a drive for donations of used soccer equipment, and Susan Plensky, a multicultural society volunteer, said there was “an amazing response from the community.” Fifty pairs of cleats were donated, along with uniforms, shinpads, socks, tracksuits, goalie gloves and a bag of soccer balls. Nanaimo 7-A-Side soccer players donated so much gear last week that organizers weren’t sure if it would all fit in their vehicles.

Daragh Fitzgerald, technical director with Harbour City FC, said he’s already had conversations about getting Syrian youths out for the coming spring soccer season.

“A lot of the kids here tonight didn’t speak much English, if any, but they all got along well, they all talked to each other and mixed in with all the Harbour City kids,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s just real good. Soccer just has a cool way of doing that.”