Vahe Gregorian

Amid anti-immigrant tide, lamp of liberty shines on KC refugee kids in soccer program

Refugee children in Kansas City find solace in soccer

Branch Global and the Overland Park Soccer Club have partnered to provide refugee children in northeast Kansas City an opportunity to play soccer, a common denominator for the immigrants from 16 countries who are trying to make a life here.
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Branch Global and the Overland Park Soccer Club have partnered to provide refugee children in northeast Kansas City an opportunity to play soccer, a common denominator for the immigrants from 16 countries who are trying to make a life here.

It’s the faces that compel you first, the vibrant and hopeful looks and the ones chiseled in stone and all so distinct.

But it’s the many sincere and carefree names, ones that might seem paradoxical to us but not to them, that perhaps speak most poignantly to the hundreds of refugee children in Kansas City finding solace and inspiration in playing soccer.

Here is Happy Melly, 13, whose family is from Congo, where millions have died in war and the barbarism associated with it.

His father was a government worker there. Targeted after rebellion, he fled with his family to Uganda, where Happy was born a refugee.

With his five other children, they came to America eight months ago under the umbrella of persecution and are now sustained by his father’s overnight factory shifts — the very sort of work that most of the refugees take on regardless of what professions they’d been in before.

Largely because of Happy’s resilience, he has gone from being overmatched in soccer to one of the best players on the teams created in one such endeavor for refugees: a partnership between the Overland Park Soccer Club and Branch Global, a cultural consulting company

“He is literally happy all the time,” said Mariya Dostzadah, 33, founder of Branch Global. “He’s so thankful. He’s probably the most thankful of all the kids.”

Also from Congo is Innocent Ngane, 13, whose broken past has obscured his essential innocence with a guardedness he hasn’t yet been able to break through.

Among other children from strife-torn parts of 16 countries in this program are All Bright Tun, 12, from Thailand, and Burmese-born Roner River, 14.

Then there is Lucky Boy Tarley, 13, from Liberia.

Among hundreds of thousands who died in civil wars there were his three older siblings, two from starvation and the other from what Dostzadah described simply as “just in the war.”

So when he was born, the name came to his mother:

Assuming his survival, he was her Lucky Boy.

The piercing stories don’t end with the defiantly sweet names, naturally.

It’s hard to know the depths of the horrors and atrocities most either directly have witnessed or been saved from by taking flight or perhaps having the circumstances gently explained to them.

Consider the Somali boy, Mahomud Hassan, 14, whose three dead siblings were so beautiful people used to just stare at them in the streets.

“They went to sleep,” he tells people, “and never woke up.”


Mohamed Ali, 13, emigrated to the United States in 2014 from Sudan via Egypt. He shares a name with the world-famous boxer.


Akram Gardoud, 12, emigrated to the United States in 2015 from Egypt with his Sudanese parents.


Elias Kaboyi, 14, emigrated to the United States from Zambia in 2014.


Yha Ah Moo, 13, emigrated to the United States in 2014 from Thailand.


Ahmed Luay Faeq, 15, emigrated to the United States in 2010 from Iraq via Egypt and Syria.


Roner River, 14, emigrated to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand.


Moulid Gudal, 15, emigrated to the United States as a refugee from Somalia.

Mounted at the Statue of Liberty in New York are the famous words to Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus”:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

To many, that lamp seems to be flickering some.

With ample reason: The charity and mercy that helped define our nation of immigrants, from the Mayflower on, is under apparent threat of siege with the incoming presidential administration’s talk of deportations and walls and the associated murmurs of a Muslim registry.

Fear and loathing in many instances are trumping reason and compassion in what are extraordinarily complicated issues that have no easy solutions even with level heads.

That was on people’s minds even before the election at a recent practice of the two age-group refugee teams at Garrison Community Center park in northeast Kansas City — where volunteer coach Seyoum Kassa from Ethiopia remembers some children showing up shoeless.

Standing in the heart of this refugee neighborhood a few hundred yards from a wall of images of flags from all over the world, Pete Weaver, a partner to Dostzadah in starting this, considered the contentious climate.

“Regardless of what your viewpoint is on that, the fact is they’re kids, they’re here — they didn’t have a choice in the matter,” said Weaver, vice president of the Overland Park Soccer Club. “And if they don’t feel welcome here, the odds of things working out well are very slim.

“So from my perspective, why not? I mean, here they are. Let’s do everything we can to make them feel welcome.

“And make them,” he added, pausing, “Americans.”

In interviews with several boys, each expressed enormous gratitude for getting to play … and just being in the United States.

Invariably, they spoke of feeling welcome and safe and appreciated such little things.

Roner thought of flowers and trees he’d never seen before and how much he loves playing with children from so many cultures and languages with one common denominator.

Notwithstanding the fact you might hear the words “open” or “ball” in about 10 languages at once watching them play, he said, “We talk with our feet.”

Speaking before a tournament last weekend at the Overland Park Soccer Complex, soft-spoken Moulid Gudal, 15, from Somalia, smiled at the mere thought of playing on grass instead of rocks.

Then he was ushered over by outgoing Ahmed Faeq, 15, from Iraq, and effervescent 13-year-old Mohamed Ali of Sudan as they described their love of the game and playfully told of how cartoons helped them learn English.

Asked what his family found when it came here by way of Egypt and Syria, Ahmed smiled and said, “They found peace.”

Amid the horseplay among them and Caleb Goodbrake, Dostzadah’s 13-year-old blonde son, Mohamed laughed about learning of his boxing namesake.

Then he spoke of how normal he has come to feel in the two years since he arrived from a refugee camp in Egypt and knew only “yes” and “no.”

“I hope that I have a successful life,” said Mohamed, whose father has told Dostzadah that he wants him to go into the U.S. military when he is of age as a way of giving back.

The tournament that culminated their season made for a generally joyous weekend … albeit with an asterisk attached.

When two of the boys were misbehaving on the way home from the final games of the tournament on Sunday, Dostzadah took them aside and was “very stern with them.”

Then one of the boys, Samuel Habimana, 12, from Rwanda, looked at her with tears in his eyes.

“Well, we can’t play soccer any more, anyway, because (Donald) Trump is (president-elect),” she recalled Samuel saying. “Trump hates people like us because we are different. He will stop us from playing soccer.”

Dostzadah wants to believe that those worries are exaggerated, and she swore to Samuel that all involved in the program will fight for him no matter what.

But she understands why the worries might be amplified in the mind of a child who already has known what it is to lose everything and be displaced.

In the moment, her heart broke at the idea that he feared losing perhaps the one thing that brings him joy as he and others cope with so many other uncertainties.

“It made me realize even more how important it is to provide soccer opportunity to these kids,” she said. “It is a symbol of freedom and hope.”


Mariya Dostzadah, center in black coat, sitting next to her husband, John Goodbrake, right, huddled in the chilly weather at the Overland Park Soccer Complex on Nov. 11, 2016 to watch the soccer matches of Infinite, two squads comprised of refugees and immigrants she has organized through the Overland Park Soccer Club and a non-profit, Branch Global. (Photo by David Eulitt,

As a woman who identifies as a cultural Muslim and follower of Jesus Christ, Dostzadah in herself is testament to the notion of the potential magic of ethnic melding.

Dostzadah, 33, was born in Afghanistan, from where her family fled during the Soviet invasion on a journey that took them through Iran and Syria before moving to Mumbai and Toronto.

She came to Kansas City with a suitcase and a few hundred dollars four years ago after serving in a Mayan village in Mexico and began working with Jewish Vocational Services and its resettlement directors and social workers in various initiatives.

The more immersed she became, the more she thought of the meaning of sport in her own life as a basketball player — a basketball player who in Toronto had to hide that from a father who struggled with how much to allow his girls to become part of an entirely different sort of society.

“So my idea was, ‘Hey, let’s just create a space for these kids,’” she said. “And let’s approach them not as a new program of something that is foreign to them but something that speaks their language.”

She and others launched a modest enterprise with a dozen or so in Raytown before gaining momentum at Garrison, where about 20 refugee girls also are participating in recreation as those in charge of the program gradually earn families’ trust with their girls. There is hope of a more formal program for them coming in the spring.

Then happenstance helped Dostzadah unite with Weaver.

Weaver had long hoped to help city kids get more and better opportunities but found transportation to be an impediment.

When his hopes came to be mentioned to a good friend of his wife who happened to be a neighbor of Dostzadah, the friend said, “I’ve got someone you need to meet.”

The alliance between Weaver and Dostzadah and many dedicated volunteer contributors seemed all the more meant to be because her husband, John Goodbrake, runs Master’s Transportation, a bus company in Belton.

In fact, this has become not just a fascination of Dostzadah’s but a family affair as demonstrated last weekend, with her husband driving the bus and sons Caleb and Nathan as always on the teams of refugees and all players being picked up and dropped off individually.

Volunteers in Overland Park also help with that, not to mention inviting the refugee children to their homes for holidays or meals or just casual get-togethers in a cause supported by Heartland Soccer and Jewish Vocational Service.

After all, as Weaver put it, the idea also is to culturally integrate “ours with theirs, theirs with ours” as they try to foster understanding and cultivate future leaders and ambassadors, and perhaps college scholarship soccer players.

Dostzadah has even more ambitious plans in the months to come, including trying to further develop a database that might help arrange more suitable employment for parents of the refugees. For instance, the father of one of the Somalian boys in the program was a doctor back home and at a refugee camp but works here on an overnight factory shift.

She also said she will be work with Liberian native and Kansas City Comets player Leo Gibson to get more coaching and funding and begin drawing attention to her dream: a city facility specifically for a program that she expects will have 200 refugee children involved by next year and perhaps could serve to bring together other such groups.

The idea would be not just for soccer but tying together more comprehensive personal needs, in the spirit of the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy for baseball.

Moreover, after expecting to speak at the United Nations in March about the powerful role women can play in preventing radicalism such as that in ISIS or the Taliban, she plans to go to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and get a small soccer field built within.

There, she will helps Syrians tell their own stories and take video to bring back to Kansas City for an exhibition.

The concept will be to connect voices and faces there with those fortunate enough to have left the camps and be here now thanks to the UN, various embassies and resettlement agencies and vetting through Homeland Security as documented with their I-94 Refugee Forms.

Not that those from Syria and all the other imperiled nations don’t already appreciate their fortune and own stories.

As she strives to give voice to the potentially voiceless, Dozstadah has encouraged them to understand those journeys now not as tales of shame from their pasts but as ones of heroism by those who saved them to get here.

And you can see how they understand that in their faces and hear it in their voices — and even know it by so many of their names.

“Most of the kids probably have one parent, because they’ve seen parents murdered or killed in war …,” she said. “(But) these people still have smiles on their faces.

“They still have hope for the future.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

How to help

To support or get involved with Branch Global’s soccer program, email