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T.J. Kirkpatrick Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — What light can manage to slips through the drawn shades in Newton Gborway's downtown apartment and splays across a mess of clothes that covers the floor and piles up high on a naked mattress in the corner.

"This place is upside down," he says. It's an apology of sorts. "I'm packing."

His trip is more than a month away, but Gborway wants everything to be perfect. For the first time in nearly 20 years, he is returning to Africa.

Gborway fled his native Liberia fearing that soldiers might force him to join their ranks. He walked with a friend for days into neighboring Sierra Leone. He left behind his father, his mother, his brother. He was 10.

Gborway became one of the 12 million people worldwide who live in refugee camps. There he spent his mornings, afternoons and evenings kicking balled-up scraps of plastic around dusty streets and dry, rocky fields until the war caught up to him and rebels broke his peace. He fled to America, into the arms of an adoptive family in Lindon.

Now he is returning home, if only for a short while.

But first there is something he needs in this cluttered studio apartment. Gborway, 28, reaches up and grabs a cardboard box that sits on a shelf.

Inside, the trophies have the shine of gold plastic, first-place soccer finishes from years past.

"The joy," he says. "That's the most important part."

This is what he wants for the Refugee All Stars, the team he manages, a mix of young men from the world's most war-torn nations. He wants them to remember the joy, to succeed — on the field and off — because, in some ways, these trophies represent the only thing each player brought with him to America: The Game.

More than 2 million refugees have resettled in the U.S. since the mid-1970s, according to Utah's Refugee Services Office. After the end of the Vietnam War, the largest number of refugees came from Southeast Asia, Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union.

In recent years, civil wars in Africa have sent an increasing number of Somalis, Sudanese and others to the U.S.

An estimated 25,000 refugees have been resettled in Utah, officials say, with about 1,000 new refugees arriving each year.

The transition is extremely challenging, says Joe Nahas, a Refugee Services program specialist.

"You come with high hopes," he says. "You think language will be your only problem, and once you get here, language goes down the list."

The quest for employment, transportation, even food, becomes consuming.

For highly educated refugees — doctors, lawyers and engineers, often coming from Iraq — being unable to find work in their fields is frustrating, causing some to return to their native countries.

Still other refugee groups come to the U.S. having spent their entire lives in camps. Their education is minimal and they struggle to fit in.

"When they get here … they feel rejected," Nahas says. "They feel lost."

Gborway wants soccer to be an escape from those frustrations and struggles, a distraction to keep his players positive and away from gangs.

"My goal for this team is to make sure the kids learn," says Gborway, who earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Utah. "Go to school and make your life better."

Watching fields around the city fill up with pick-up games on Sundays, Lew Miller and Bruce Granath, a pair of soccer dads who are also involved in refugee efforts, saw an opportunity to bring these players into the state's organized ranks.

As the world's most popular sport gains favor in the U.S., world-class players like the English Premier League's Didier Drogba and Michael Essien — from the war-torn Ivory Coast and Ghana, respectively — have become household names in American suburbia.

"This is such a natural bridge" between two diverse communities, Granath says.

So a tryout was held and a team was organized.

The players, most ranging in age from late teens to early 30s, come from a mix of countries, including Sudan, Sierra Leone and Iraq.

But they are all refugees.

They are survivors of the atrocities of war and witnesses to unspeakable violence. They have seen others robbed of their limbs by enemy blades. They have watched their family members shot and killed over something as simple as grain.

Samuel Rogers, a 20-year-old midfielder whose teammates call him Skills, was too young to remember his father being killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone.

The Rogers family traded cash and jewels for rides to a refugee camp in Ghana.

"Basically, there was nowhere safe back in Africa," he says. "It just kept spreading. The best way to survive is just keep moving on. … In every country you move, you have to start over. You have nothing. … There was no time to bury a family member or to even have time to cry.

"You just have to move on and keep their memory."

Each player on the team has a story like this, though few share them, Rogers says.

"The more you talk about it, the more depressed and worried you get about it," he says. "There are lots of people who are supposed to be dead by now, but by the grace of the Lord, we worship. The past is the past, and you can't change it."

When you are a refugee, you feel another's pain, Gborway says. You're all here for the same reason: You cannot go home.

So, instead, they focus on the game.

"It was one of the things I used to escape from my tragedies that happen in the war," Rogers says. "So I won't think about it a lot. Even though I still think about it, going out and playing soccer helps me forget about it."

In the team's first game, Rogers scores two goals. One comes as he pressures a back-pass from a defender to the goalie and steals the ball. Another time he dribbles left, pushing his defender toward the center of the field and then puts a back swing on the ball.

"The goalie didn't expect it to go in," he says. "He thought it would go out of bounds."

The team controls these league games, but it isn't always so easy.

On an early spring day, before one of the team's first practices, an argument breaks out between two men over who should have control of the team.

"If this comes together, it's going to be a miracle," says Miller, a Salt Lake City attorney.

The players, meanwhile, are struggling to come up with their league fees — a total of $3,250 that Nahas needed to turn in weeks ago.

Another time, Gborway will wait for his team to show up for pictures, which the league requires. Not one player turns up, so Gborway spends the day driving from Rose Park to Draper and Magna collecting the photos one by one.

It's not surprising, he says. Many of his players are juggling multiple jobs, lack transportation and have families to care for.

"What will you say to that? Don't (help) your mother and come to practice?"

Take, for example, the team's backup goalkeeper, Amos. At 49, he's the team's oldest player, and he has assumed a starting role for a perfectly practical reason: the first-string keeper got a new job and has to work on Saturdays.

It is a chilly evening in early May and the players shiver and complain as they wait for another team to show up at Fairmont Park in Sugar House for a friendly. The team is from the league's top division, "a test."

The team's head coach, Samuel Pyeka, takes a phone call from one of his players, who wants to know if the other team is still planning on playing.

Pyeka hangs up and shakes his head. "That was my goalkeeper. He says it's too cold."

Pyeka is a refugee himself. He knows the horrors his players have seen.

He left Sudan in 1996. "This is the time the war starts back," he says. "I have been in the bush. We are hiding in the trees. I married in the bush. I had my children in the bush."

For years in Sudan, the gunfire never seemed to stop. When they would fish, because they had to fish, the gunfire was waiting for them along the water.

He made his way to a refugee camp and, eventually, to Pasco, Wash.

It was affordable, Pyeka says, though he had to work long hours to make it so. He dropped his children off at school early and picked them up from caretakers after midnight. Pyeka's children were losing the language of the Mabaan, so he moved his family to Salt Lake to be close to his brother.

"Now when they speak my language, they make me laugh," he says.

What he remembers most, though, of his first days in the U.S. is the constant roaring of traffic. These are the challenges of resettling in a foreign land.

"We have to learn how to eat this food and learn how to hear the sound of cars," he says.

But the All-Stars did not have to learn how to play soccer.

They have played the game since they were children, and many of them honed their skills in refugee camps, where soccer is often the only escape.

"From morning to evening," says Nahas, a refugee from Sierra Leone, "you play soccer or you pray."

In the camps, there is nothing but rats and snakes and cockroaches, Rogers says.

"The best way to spend your time is to play soccer," he says. "Basketball, you don't want to play basketball because there's no court to shoot. Soccer is an easy sport. Anywhere two or three guys gather you can play soccer. Put out your slippers, put out your shoes as a goal and just play soccer."

Gborway hopes the team might help his players draw interest from colleges and other clubs. "People see your talent," he says.

And there's plenty of talent to go around.

The team crushes its opponents — 4-2, 9-1 — in the Utah Soccer Association's lower division, where it must win in order to move into the top league.

Karim Kathem, the team's best midfielder, played in Iraq's top league. If he were younger, he would look to play professionally again. "I am talent," he says, a statement not so much based in pride as fact.

"After the war, there is no soccer in Iraq," he says. "There are no fields. Maybe if you are practicing, they will attack you. … Now I am 30. I am old."

But Kathem believes there are players on this team with the talent to play at higher levels.

William Toe, a Liberian refugee whose path to Salt Lake passed through the Ivory Coast and Texas, works at the airport from 4 a.m. until 1 p.m. so he can have time to practice, play and work out.

As he waits for practice to start, Toe, a forward, sports a black track suit, aviator sunglasses and earrings with stars in them. He rests a soccer ball on his right foot, and then pushes it into the air, wrapping his foot around it before volleying it to his head.

"Sometimes he makes fun of another player," Kathem says. His teammate has skill, he means, often too much for his competition.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Rose Park, children laugh as they try to sneak balls past the long legs of adults. While the opposing sideline is bare, the refugees' side is buzzing with activity.

These games are community events, Nahas says. Entire neighborhoods turn out for the annual African tournament, which features teams made up mostly of players from a single country. Eventually, he expects a similar following for the All Stars.

It is a chance, for a moment perhaps, to be surrounded by a feeling most left a lifetime ago, on another continent, in a place called home.

For if there is one thing these players desire, it is not to watch the ball bend sharply and fall into the back of the net; it is to return to peace — to quiet moments along the water — and to rebuild their homes.

"You miss your country," Toe says.

Because of the great distance between their remote village and a telephone, Pyeka has been able to speak to his parents but once or twice since he came to the U.S.

Gborway just recently discovered his brother was still alive in Liberia.

"One day, there should be peace instead of war," says Rogers, the player they call Skills.

When he's not playing for the All Stars, or a number of other club teams, Rogers plays for the Salt Lake Community College team.

He is marking off his general education requirements at the school. He wants to become a teacher.

He wants to return to Africa.

"If I have an opportunity … in Africa, I would like to go back and help out just teaching," Rogers says. "It doesn't matter how much the pay is, it just matters how much I can give back to them."

Back on the field, the All Stars are getting opportunities against a shorthanded team called Kr3w, but their strikes are off target. The team's skill is evident, the All Stars' speed and footwork superior. But the score sits at 0-0.

Rogers, patrolling the sideline and waiting to enter the game, talks strategy with his coach and hollers words of encouragement at a team well versed in adversity.

"Keep up on your feet," he shouts. "Stay up. Stay up, guys."