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City Heights Soccer Team Sees Glory In Playing For Syria

A soccer ball marked

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: A soccer ball marked "Syria" sits in the grass at Colina Del Sol Park as soccer coach Yahya Assad leads the youth team members in laps, April 6, 2017.

As the world witnesses the fallout of a chemical weapons attack in Syria, some of that nation’s youngest refugees are finding a way to move forward in their new home in San Diego.

The global soccer competition known as the World Cup is still a year away, but in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood, a different kind of international soccer tournament is just around the corner. About a dozen youth teams representing different countries will compete in the City Heights World Cup this weekend. For one team's athletes, it's a chance to play for the country they were forced to flee: Syria.

Thirteen-year-old Mohammad Alibrahim, like many of his teammates, landed in San Diego a few months ago after escaping the war-torn country. Alibrahim is from Aleppo, Syria. He said he hopes to win the weekend competition, but he is mostly looking forward to representing his home nation.

“My country is Syria, and I love Syria,” the young athlete said through a translator.

The Middle Eastern country has been embroiled in a brutal six-year civil war that recently sparked U.S. action against the Syrian leader. President Donald Trump on Thursday ordered the bombing of a Syrian airbase after President Bashar al-Assad carried out a chemical attack that killed dozens and injured hundreds.

Saturday's tournament, which is organized by the faith-based nonprofit Kaleo Missions, will be the first competitive match for Alibrahim and his teammates, but practices started weeks ago. For the last two months, the recreational drills and exercises have served as an outlet for the members while they adjust to their new home in San Diego, said Yahya Assad, volunteer coach.

Assad, also a Syrian refugee who has no relation to that nation's president, said the four-days-a-week practices have helped players improve more than just their skills.

"The most important thing for us to work on, the very first thing, was to work on their feelings, to remove them from a place of sadness," Assad said in Arabic. "We raise them up."

Alibrahim said participating with the team gives him something to look forward to after school, when he would usually be sitting around watching TV.

“I like it both because my friends are part of it and because I love the exercise,” he said.

The City Heights World Cup, in its second year, kicks off Saturday at 9 a.m.

Kaleo Mission's Scott Graff said the idea started after he put up soccer goals in Colina del Sol Park in an effort to build relationships with newly-arrived refugee families. Graff said the sport is helpful to overcome language barriers.

"When there’s a lack of English, you got a soccer ball in front of you, and (then) you’re friends," he said.

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