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December 11, 2007

Stolen moments: For some refugees living in Louisville, a South End soccer field is a good place to forget their tormented past

FeaturePHOTOS BY GEOFF OLIVER BUGBEEIt’s a late October afternoon when the heavens begin to rumble and stir. Dense clouds boil into a threatening mass and block the sun, leaving on the edge a brilliant silver lining that seems to trace the coast of west Africa. But the brewing tempest above scarcely slows the pick-up soccer match unfolding beneath. The players remain oblivious, focused on the game, even when a Zeus-like lightning bolt pierces the blue-gray cloudbank, followed by a nearly simultaneous thunder crack.Then, another sound. A tornado warning siren wails from a speaker nearby. Children cover their ears and look up. The players look skyward briefly, then resume, unfazed, even while most everyone else around the Metro is heading for a basement with an ear to what John Belski has to say.The men and boys who regularly visit this South Louisville lot to play soccer bring an obvious international flavor. They come from Bosnia, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq. In their previous lives, they’ve experienced the savagery of war and unfathomable brutality — mortars, machine guns, machetes, burning villages, tanks and bombs. They’ve cried over slain fathers, buried sisters. Some carry bullet wounds and have the scars to prove it.A tornado warning?Game on.The play on this field is hardcore, without referees but sometimes with blood. This day, and most Saturdays, the raucous and cacophonous shouts that fill the field could be seen as cathartic. These men and boys, who feel powerless and homesick in their new homeland, get some measure of relief when they gather to play a game they find familiar and comforting. Soccer, with no holds barred. Dust stirring, legs churning, eyes wide soccer.Attack. Defend. Collide. Attack. I’m open! Pass. Stop him! Score! This open lot lies near where South First Street terminates at East Kenwood Way, north of the epicenter of Louisville’s melting pot, the Americana Apartments. This is not a field of dreams whose participants will elevate to organized soccer on a higher level. They are working men who support families; only one who has played here regularly has moved on to Division I college soccer.But it is important for different reasons. It is a field where men who carry constant nightmares can smile, play hard, speak the language of the sport they love and, for a stolen moment or two, forget the torment and turmoil of their past.As the smells of ethnic food cooking emanate from the nearby Douglas Park and Americana apartments like phantoms reminding them of home, men and boys with faces of multiple hues show up at the field almost every day. Some are players, while others will watch, too beaten down from the trials of life or just weary from the day. Most speak some English to get by at their jobs at places such as the UPS sorting hub, but here English is hardly necessary.The common language is soccer, the game that is played around the world, from the beaches of Brazil to the sands of Morocco and the verdant pastures of Ireland.Cars and vans arrive carrying men ready for action. Some arrive on foot. Teams usually break down along ethnic and nationality lines. Always, someone has a ball. The game begins, and as new players arrive, they merge into the flow like cars squeezing into rush-hour Watterson traffic.‘They cut off my dad’s ear’As kicked-up dust drifts into the russet glow of early evening, Salim Siljkovic’s happily exhausted voice is one of the many languages that fill the air. Stepping aside from the game to answer my questions, his attention is split. He wants to tell his story, but he can’t really take his darting eyes off the game. Occasionally he shouts encouragement or disagreement toward the field.This is a particularly cool early November evening, and the white steam from my own chilled breath conjoins with the caustic arc of blue smoke from Salim’s cigarette as he tells his story through an interpreter. He is unusually thin, with tussled, sandy hair and hollow eyes that look anxious over the dark circles that seem to have become a permanent part of his countenance. He stands shivering, arms crossed over his T-shirt, except for when he pulls his cigarette up to suck in the warming fumes.Salim’s story, as tragic as it is, is not at all unusual or particularly alarming in this context, where tragic life stories are the norm. He was 9 years old and living in Vlasedica, Bosnia when the Serbian soldiers came, blasting away with tanks, disarming his town in a brutal blitzkrieg and capturing all males of fighting age, including his father. Speaking rapidly between drags, Salim tells me how in the coming three years, before he saw his father one last time, he saw people shot, including from his own family.“Your family members were killed?” I ask.“Many,’’ he mumbles, grinding his cigarette butt into the damp grass and lighting another. He draws his finger across his throat. “I saw them cut people’s throats in the street. I was just a boy.”But the thought that unceasingly pounds his consciousness is the last moment he saw his dad. It was dark, he says, and his father returned to say he had escaped from his captors but was returning to fight for his country.“They cut off my dad’s ear,’’ Salim says, and points to his own, then uses his finger to pretend to saw at his own shoulder to describe how Serbian soldiers cut off flesh from his father’s shoulder. “They made him eat it. That’s what my father told me.”That was 12 years ago, when Salim himself was 12, and he hasn’t seen or heard from his father since. Salim made it to Louisville through a refugee agency and attended Western High School. He is 24 years old now, and has survived without his father since.I ask if he ever stops thinking about the last time he saw his dad. He nods.“Yes. When I come here and play soccer,’’ he says, and glances toward the field. “I can forget what happened for a while. The rest of the time, I am always thinking about it.”A shout snaps his attention toward the field: “Salim!”Looking slightly apologetic, he throws his cigarette down and runs into the game, instantly receiving a pass and joining the action.‘It’s a passion’When people flee war and seek solace and support, thousands are sent from refugee camps around the globe to their new home, Louisville’s South End. Once moved in, they look for the familiar, something they understand in their strange surroundings. It doesn’t take long to find that familiar thing — soccer — and then it becomes the part of their life that transports them back to good memories, before their lives got hijacked.This field is not really a soccer field, even though there are two goals for the main game, which usually includes about 20 African players. On most Saturdays at sundown, there are at least two games going at the same time. These pickup games have been ongoing for years in this part of the city, where Catholic Charities and other agencies help refugees get their American foothold. Here, bodies smash and fly, dirt dances, and men smile, bark, argue and sweat until it’s too dark to see.The play can be extremely fast, and mesmerizing to watch. That is because, Atherton High School varsity soccer coach Val Bole says, soccer is a real passion.“It’s a part of their nationality. It’s the way they grow up,” Bole says. “When they show up at that field, it’s like bringing their home with them. They were forced to leave, and this is a part of their lives.”Behind the Americana Community Center, Somalis sit on one wooden bleacher bench cheering for their compatriots on the field, while Sudanese sit or stand nearby on the other, cheering for the Sudanese team. Men with the surnames Abdi or Muhamed are as common as Smith and Jones in the rest of the city.There are no uniforms. A tall, sinewy man from Sudan wears what looks like a canary yellow team uniform, but others just wear their favorite colors, usually bright: cherry reds, October sky blues and emerald greens that contrast with the dry, patchy lot where they play.One shorter man looks like he’s wearing light blue pajama pants. Multiple languages mix, including Swahili and Arabic and numerous tribal or ethnic languages. A short but stout Vietnamese man named Thomas Phan is allowed into the mix because he’s proven he can hold his own, and he is a magician with his feet.On a different part of the same field, the Iraqis and Bosnians play their game, equally ferocious but in a different style. Theirs is less based on speed and is more grinding and brutal. These are tough-looking men, often with a day’s growth over their square jaws. At least some wear bloody knees.At the far end of the field, with goals fashioned from wooden saw horses, junior brothers from Cuba and Mexico, and a boy from Guatemala stay out of the way, like cub lions waiting for their elders to finish eating what they want from a downed beast. They stand aside, knowing someday they will join the big game. They practice kicking goals.Among those is the field’s only female. Lucijana Vrebac, a 16-year-old Croatian, is not only the star of the Atherton High School girl’s soccer team, she was also an honorable mention member of the high school all-regional team this season. Sometimes, she joins the Africans.“I’ve been playing soccer with boys all my life,’’ she says.The non-playing Bosnians and Iraqis stand on the edge of the field opposite the Africans. One of those is T.J. Abdula, an Iraqi who comes to watch.“Everyone here has a story,’’ he says dourly. “Mine is Saddam Hussein hanged three of my brothers.”Other Iraqis I approached declined to answer my questions. I understand they have their reasons. Perhaps it’s as simple as not wanting to step out of the game they look forward to all week.Play is intense, with flashes of fury that erupt and then subside as quickly as a tropical afternoon storm. The closest thing I saw to real anger came one day when a small girl stood in the nearby playground, pointing at a moist, sticky sucker lying in the dirt while shouting at a boy, who had his head down in apparent guilt.An attacking lionMostly, it’s for fun, but some who have played here have higher ambition, such as Kennedy Nakwa, who now plays Division I soccer for Xavier University in Cincinnati. When he attended Atherton, he was named the best high school player in the western half of Kentucky.Kennedy’s father was a tribal chief in southern Sudan, and his playing style reflects the authority of a field general and warrior. Once while watching an Atherton soccer game a few years ago against Trinity, I stood awed by his power and speed during an attack on goal. Writing in my diary later that evening, I compared him to an attacking lion.In recent weeks visiting the makeshift field, I have witnessed many ferocious attacks and brave defensive stops and have finally, after years of reluctance, begun to appreciate the world’s passion for a game many Americans still consider boring.Kennedy’s brother Peter still plays here, but with a different style that seems appreciated by the loyal, smiling crowd that gathers to watch. As Peter Nakwa dances fleet-footed across the field one recent evening, seeming to defy gravity, Peter Biek smiles contentedly. “Watching the young people gives me joy,’’ says Biek, who played soccer as a child in Sudan before his childhood, and nearly his life, were robbed by a bullet. “I have been playing soccer since I was little,” he says. “That’s why I love to watch.”Biek has a haunting face, dark as Belgian chocolate. It reveals wear and tear that belie his relatively young age of 27. He doesn’t play, he says, because he was shot in the leg during war in Sudan.World leaders have often referred to the civil war in Sudan as genocide, the result of an ethnic conflict between the Arab-controlled north in Khartoum and the black-controlled south. The blacks, like Biek, call it murder. Arab leaders, though, claim they are defending the government from a black-led rebellion.Regardless, it is war — a war that took the life of the Nakwas’ father, who put his children on a truck heading for Kenya before he was shot. They came to Louisville with other sisters and brothers but no parents.‘We are still together’Through it all, living with the constant flashbacks that bring memories worse than most nightmares, the men on this field have had their own consoling avocation: soccer.“We all call each other brothers,’’ says James Atem, a Sudanese who is one of the renowned Lost Boys of Sudan. He points toward the field, at countryman Santino Aquek. They played soccer together in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before they re-united in Louisville.“It’s the same here, but different. We have a real ball,’’ says Atem, who works at UPS, auditing and shipping, from 2-11 p.m. “In the camp, we tied all of our socks together to make a ball and played barefoot.”Atem and other boys survived by braving “wild animals and wild people’’ during a 28-day walk from Sudan to Ethiopia.“In Ethiopia, we had nothing, but we had soccer,’’ he says. “Now, we are still together and we’re still playing soccer.’’Nearby, Tat Ruey, 36, stands like an elder, watching the play. He’s a gentle man with a face like Whoopie Goldberg’s, only smaller. He once carried 150 bullets, including 30 in his assault rifle and 120 on a belt thrown over his shoulder. In that war, his father died, as did all of his brothers. He knows he’s too old to play in this den of warriors.“We who have been in war know that if we survived, it wasn’t because we were better at fighting,’’ he says. “It means God decided it wasn’t our day to die.”Ruey, whose eyes are yellowing and bloodshot, stands near the goal. Somalian Sharmake Abdi collides with someone seemingly twice his size and is knocked hard to the ground. Sharmake gets up, brushes off the dirt from his bare leg and runs toward the action. The slightly built, always smiling 17-year-old plays on the Atherton team. It is his life, he says.“In the camp in Kenya, we played soccer from morning until night.”Says Ruey: “All of these men have been in war, all of them. Some have been shot, all have lost family. They have seen terrible things. This field is our place.”The sun is setting now, and the Iraqis and Bosnians stand near their cars. Some talk on cell phones. The younger ones say their goodbyes and head home for dinner. By now, the African men have stood up from the bleachers to watch the game’s final seconds.Running beside their long November evening shadows, sometimes stumbling from their own exhaustion, the warriors make one final attack on goal. They meet intense resistance. A collision at midfield. Men go down.Attack. Open! Pass! Another collision. The shot!This time it is a miss. The ball sails over the goal by a meter, into the nearby grassy field. I watch as a younger brother races out into the high grass to recover the ball. When I look back, the men are gathering in the dying dust at midfield, slapping backs and smiling. The sun is an orange ball hanging low just over their heads.The game is over, and within a few moments, the field is empty, nothing but stomped grass and limp goal nets. Still, there is magic here — the phantom essence left by warriors heading home with bloody knees and pounding hearts.  Contact the writer at scwade@netzero.net