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Eritreans in Kansas City see 'the great game' as an antidote to American street culture

Twelve men, six kneeling and six standing, pose for a group photo near a soccer goal. They are wearing red, patterned jerseys with yellow numbers and black shorts.
Abraham Atu
Abraham Atu
The KC Legends Kunama Soccer team posing in October 2022 in new team jerseys back of October 2022. Abraham Atu, founder of the team, wears No. 5.

After escaping civil war in their homeland, members of the Kunama ethnic group have found a home in Kansas City, Kansas. After seeing some youths get into trouble, Abraham Atu started a soccer team to steer them the right way.

When a 13-year-old Ugandan immigrant died in a Kansas City, Kansas, pool two years ago, Abraham Atu knew it was time for someone to step up to help save kids in his community.

“They convinced him to jump a fence to go swimming,” said Atu about Emmanuel Solomon, who drowned in 2021 after sneaking into Parkwood Pool with some friends after hours.

“They went into the deep end and I guess they left him,” said Atu, who’s from a small ethnic group in Eritrea called Kunama.

“It was really tragic and I was shocked,” he said.

Atu took Solomon’s drowning as a symptom of a bigger issue, he said: Kids in his community of African immigrants don’t have many safe options for after-school activities.

“He was one of the kids that started an indoor (soccer) team with my cousin,” he said. After Solomon’s death, the small team he organized to play at Soccer Nation was forced to dissolve.

So, the 22-year-old Atu took up the mantle. He’s now using the same game he learned in Ethiopian refugee camps as a way to keep Kunama, and other immigrant youth, in Kansas City, Kansas, out of trouble.

“There are people trying to influence these kids to join gangs,” said Atu, a Wyandotte High School graduate and psychology major at Kansas Christian College in Overland Park. “It's just messing up their life and when they start, it's going to be hard to get out.”

Soccer connecting communities

The KC Legends Kumana Soccer team Atu organized has players ranging from 15 years old to their mid-20s.

Amaren Longen, a 16-year-old the team calls “Rueben,” plays left wing, and belongs to a family of Eritrean immigrants. He said he was heading down the wrong path.

“After school, we were going to different neighborhoods doing bad stuff like smoking or drinking,” Longen said. “But when (Atu) started the team it just showed us that we had people that care for us, and he was just leading us the right way.”

The Wyandotte High School junior said the team’s mentorship and community has also helped him focus more on his education.

Atu’s care has even drawn the attention of other Kunama communities in the region. He said families from as far as St. Joseph, Missouri, make the 50-minute trip two or three times a week in order to join practice.

A groups of male soccer players stand and sit on the edge of a track near a soccer field. They appear to be listening to one man talking to the group.
Abraham Atu
Abraham Atu
The KC Legends Kunama Soccer team during a gameday in St. Joseph, Missouri, in October. After going into halftime tied at 2-2, Abraham Atu says they finished with a 6-3 win.

“We even go and pick them up sometimes to play and to have fun,” Atu said. “The community isn't big, about 20 families or so, so we're working on everything to support each other.”

As the team grows, KC Legends has found itself in need of money for equipment, uniforms and travel fees for tournaments.

Atu is using a new crowdfunding site called AngeLink to raise funds.

Gerry Poirier, the CEO of AngeLink, recently provided a match for the KC Legends fundraising, through the AngeLink Community Foundation. It brought their fundraising total to $250 so far, out of a goal of $3,500.

“Every single one of those boys on that team needs some help, and we're here for them.” Poirier says. “They inspire me. Look what these kids are doing to try and help their community.”

Preserving history and heritage

The team is currently practicing for a soccer tournament in August that’s part of the Kunama Cultural Festival 2023, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The city of about 200,000 people has the largest Kunama population in the U.S., and soccer teams come from Phoenix, Atlanta, Canada, and elsewhere to compete, and celebrate Kunama history and culture.

"Seeing everyone put on our native clothing and perform cultural dances makes us feel like we are one step closer to home," Atu said. "It makes me want to cry because it reminds me of how peaceful it used to be before the wars and governmental repression."

Moses Idris is the organizer of the Sioux Falls tournament, and has been a soccer coach in that community since he left a refugee camp in Ethiopia 10 years ago.

Idris has been a mentor to Atu for the past couple of years, and says Atu’s leadership in the Kunama community took him by surprise.

Five soccer players all wearing different T-shirts and shorts appear to be practicing on a synthetic turf field.
Abraham Atu
Abraham Atu
The KC Legends Kunama Soccer team practiced in Wyandotte County last week.

“I've just been encouraging him to stick to his passion and to do what he's called to do. I’m glad he's following that,” Idris said. “I'm hoping that he'll have more support in his city to do what he is capable of and more.”

Atu said his team is determined to make it to the tournament, even if they don't meet their fundraising goals.

“Some of the older guys will be working overtime just to save enough for the kids, so we could pay for their trips,” he said. “I think this would help these kids realize that there are people in their lives that want to help them and show them that they're not forgotten.”

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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