Afghan refugees in Kansas City create a new routine where soccer, culture and English practice unite
Informal soccer matches every Saturday on the open fields at Shawnee Mission North High School let Afghan refugees visit with people from their home country and speak their native languages. It's also a chance to improve their English.
One Saturday in October, Sayed Reza Hosseini and his young son Sayed Jawad Hosseini spent about two hours playing soccer on opposing teams at Shawnee Mission North High School.
Their teammates on the open field were around 15 to 20 refugees from Afghanistan who arrived over the past five years, along with Afghan–Americans of different ages and various cultural backgrounds. They speak English and two of Afghanistan's national languages, Dari and Pashto, with different accents. Every weekend, and sometimes during the week if they have time, they come together to play soccer.
“It is not only playing soccer or sports to release mental pressure, but it also builds and supports our social communication, especially for my kids,” Hosseini said. “They can visit regularly their people from our original country, and they can speak in their native language."
The weekly games have also helped Hosseini improve his English, which he said is getting better every day.
"Learning English is the hardest thing for me,” he said. “Sometimes young Americans and Indian–Americans also come with us to play soccer. It helps us build a cultural relationship and learn about each other because English is a global language."
Hosseini was born in Iran.
“Before the Russian Military took control in Afghanistan and the internal war started in Afghanistan, my father immigrated to Iran,” he explained. “In 2016, because of Iranian government violence against Afghanistan citizens, I decided to go to Turkey.”
There, he and his wife and children registered their names with the UN Refugee Agency. He arrived in Kansas City in 2021.
"As a human, I did not have some basic rights when I was in Iran. But when I came to Kansas City, after a few weeks, all my family received their work authorization and social security number,” Hosseini said.
Jewish Vocational Service helped the family find a home and start their new life here.
"I found this country and Kansas City people very kind,” he said. “They helped us as much as they could. I have my humanitarian rights which a U.S. citizen has. It surprised me because we never had this right before."
He said he is happy to know his three children have a clear future, including one son who has a disability.
Hosseini did odd jobs as a laborer when he was in Iran, and said he is looking for a job that can help cover his expenses.
Brothers Fazil Hussaini, 12, and Saboor Hussaini, 13, are the youngest immigrants who play every weekend with their dad and oldest brother Ali Hussaini, 18.
Their family immigrated from Afghanistan to the United States in 2018. On the field, Saboor and Fazil sometimes amaze other players by communicating with each other and fellow players in two languages, sometimes English and sometimes their native Dari.
Saboor and Fazil play with the Kansas City Legends Soccer Club, an organization for players between the ages of 7 and 19. Saboor plays left-wing and center-mid, and Fazil at center-back and center mid.
“This is my dream to become a professional soccer player," Saboor said. "I get to practice and have fun playing soccer with this group of young people from my original country."
Another regular player is Hamid Afghanzai, who came to Kansas after the Afghanistan government collapsed in August 2021.
Afghanzai said he is happy with his new life here in Kansas City.
“It is very hard to see your family struggling to live in a bad situation, especially from the security and economic perspective back home,” he said of his time in Afghanistan.
“I am happy because I could find new friends,” Hamid said. He loves his new neighborhood in Overland Park. “This is a very beautiful and safe area," he said, adding that he appreciates the stores and parks nearby and that he was surprised by the "huge demand for jobs.”
Afghanzai works as an estimator with Blue Scope Buildings North America, helping to determine how much iron is needed for construction of a building.
"Keeping the balance between family time, work, and friends makes it more fun for me,” he said. "It feels good since there are many people from different countries living in Kansas City, and when you are involved in an activity you will realize that you are not the only immigrant who lives here and (this) makes you feel comfortable.”
The players have created a WhatsApp group to communicate and schedule times to play and make new friends.
"Someone who joins us for the first time introduces himself to another team member," Afghanzai said.
Often joining the group is Ben Ahsahyah, a UMKC graduate student.
“I enjoy playing with the Afghans. It is a great experience. I am experiencing a different culture and language,” he said. “They are very friendly and know how to have fun."