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Members of the Edmonton Police Services and the Somali community played a friendly soccer game in April 2009.

In April, members of the Somali community and the Edmonton Police Services played a friendly game of soccer.

It may have seemed like a regular match to the spectators, but for the people involved, it was much more.

The game was intended to create a casual event with the Somalis in order to break the barrier of fear between them and the police. The soccer pitch is a medium where minorities have an edge on the authorities — something they're not accustomed to in Somalia.

"In Somalia, if you see a guy in a uniform, you run. He is the guy that will arrest you, that will cause you to disappear and protects a corrupt government," Thomas Lukaszuk, the MLA for Edmonton Castledown, recently told CBCSports.ca.

"Now they arrive in Canada and we ask them to forget about all of that," Lukaszuk said. "It's unrealistic."

Friendships developed

At the game, members from both parties put their differences aside and instantly became comfortable with each other.

"You could see the development of friendship, they were teasing each other about certain plays and having discussions," Lukaszuk said.

"For a while the Somali youth forgot these individuals were police officers, and felt welcome, appreciated and important."

The game resulted in an exchange of phone numbers, emails and business cards.

"I was honoured to be there and had a lot of conversations with people and made instant connections," Cons. Michelle Horchuk said.

But it was when several Somali youth approached Horchuk to inquire about joining the police force that she knew the event she'd organized was a success.

"Police are not that different from anyone else," said Horchuk. She said the growing communication and trust was evident soon after the match.

"I was actually invited to a Somali wedding last weekend," she said with a surprised laugh.

"I definitely attribute the invitation largely in part to the relationships that we built at the soccer game."

Cities like Edmonton and Calgary are home to more than 20,000 Somali immigrants. Gang fights and drugs in the region have resulted in several murders among the Somali community, which has troubled the Edmonton Police Services.

Edmonton police have always had education and outreach programs, but the department noticed that the Somali minority wasn't getting the message.

"Traditional public relations is not suitable for minorities," Lukaszuk said.

"Having a police officer in uniform with a gun going to schools works for our western Canadian children because we raised them to believe the police officer is a good person," Lukaszuk explained. But that's not the case for immigrants "from countries where policing and government are not in place," he said.

Somalis, officers played on mixed teams

To encourage both parties to mingle, the six-team tournament featured mixed squads where officers and Somalis played together.

"I'm thrilled that they now consider us apart of the community," Horchuk said.

Telling citizens you want to help doesn't compare to showing them, Lukaszuk said. He's optimistic that the Somali youth will begin respecting the officers as friends instead of enemies. 

"It's no longer them against us, they're actually trying to work with us, not against us," Lukaszuk said.

Horchuk was pleased that the event not only raised awareness, but also inspired some Somali teenagers to pursue a career in police enforcement.

"Anytime we can incorporate people into the department from different cultural backgrounds, that's a strength to us in helping others from those cultures," she said.

Lukaszuk agreed, adding that the department's diversity is its main strength.

"One of the ways to address crime in the community is to make sure that our police is representative of the entire community — which means that there should be some Somali police officers who understand the culture and language," he said.  

Many Somalis travelled a great distance to witness the match, and Lukaszuk said the event will be repeated yearly.

He also said officials are organizing a cook-off event for Somali women, to introduce Canadians to Somalian cuisine.