For years, a group in Abilene has hosted summer soccer camps for refugee children who’ve resettled there. But this summer, they took their game on the road.
The volunteers recently returned from Warsaw, Poland, where they held a soccer camp for Ukrainian refugees.
Abilene-based Play4More usually runs its camps with help from Abilene Christian University’s women’s soccer team. As the group planned for its June Poland trip they recruited others, like Annie Escobar, an ACU junior from Honduras who described feeling empathy for the kids as her motivation to participate.
“Soccer has been like a positive outlet in my country. You know, we suffer a lot of political turmoil, and soccer has influenced our lives a lot,” she said. “So I wanted to do the same for these kids, ‘cause they’re going through a lot of things.”
Before the trip, she joined team members for a one-credit class on working with displaced people taught by the regional director of the International Rescue Committee. “It’s important to have positive outlets and positive engagements with other people, learning how to trust in each other. That’s something that they lose whenever they experience these things.”
When Russia invaded Ukraine, millions poured over the border into Poland, including its capital, Warsaw.
“At some point we had three million people come in extra to our city in a period of two months and that’s like doubling the size of our city,“ said Maciek Liziniewicz, pastor of Life Church Warsaw, and executive director of the charity Life Poland. His group started helping early on. “Any charities, any churches are welcome to help. We’ve been there on the streets just giving food, blankets, trying to organize some structure for the refugees.”
By last summer, Warsaw was serving more than 150,000 Ukrainian refugees and people like Liziniewicz were thinking about the community’s long-term needs. His group realized some 600 residents at one refugee center were school-aged kids with nothing to do. “They’ve already lost two years of education because of COVID. And now they’ve lost another, almost a year because of the war so their education was just dropped. So my big idea was to set up a school,” LIziniewicz said.
The U.S.-based organization Love Does helped Liziniewicz make it happen, hiring some teachers from among the refugees. But he still wanted to do more for the kids.
Love Does connected Liziniewicz with Jason Morris, the founder of Play4More in Abilene.
“Play4More has a mission to serve refugees. That’s a core part of our project. We’re refugee soccer ball designers,” Morris said. “And so part of our outreach is doing soccer camps. And high on my list was serving those Ukrainian children coming over after migrating from their country during wartime.”
Once in Warsaw, organizers divided the camp into two groups. Younger kids started the day with a vacation bible school, then joined the older kids for soccer in the afternoon.
Annie Escobar volunteered to mentor one camper, Sasha, who had extra energy and was struggling in the group setting. She says one of her favorite moments was when Sascha set aside his own chance to connect with a man the kids saw as a sort of celebrity, to instead, mentor the younger players. “Sascha was probably eight. And these kids were six and five. He started hugging all the little kids. He was saying like, ‘I’m glad you’re here! You’re gonna play soccer with us? I’m so happy you came!’ He wanted to play with this man. But he would rather be the paternal figure of these kids instead of finding his own.”
For Jason Morris, the highlight of his trip came at the end of camp. “Many of the refugee soccer players would ask us to sign their jerseys and their t-shirts, and their shoes. And so there was a big signing party. Our team brought some Ukrainian flags for them to sign and that we could take that back and have that memory. But you could really tell at the end it was an impactful time.”
The camp showed just how much the kids need to be active. Now, Maciek Liziniewicz says local volunteers in Warsaw are trying to keep that momentum up, “As we speak the soccer camp continues its work through some sort of one or two-hour classes once a week. But that’s not enough.” Liziniewicz says his dream is to build a full-time sports center to serve both refugee and local kids in Warsaw.
Everyone involved says they hope the war ends soon, and that the kids can return home to Ukraine. But Play4More volunteers say they’d love to make the trip from Texas to Poland next year if there’s still a need.