'It's just a waste': Refugees lack opportunity to play elite soccer

A local soccer player and coach are concerned newcomers to Winnipeg don’t have the opportunity to play elite level soccer, which could pivot some from the draw of street gangs.
Emmanuel Lomoro (21) of Liberty FC Winnipeg pressures an opposition player during the first half of their game on Nov. 5. The game ended in a 2-2 draw. (Nolan Kowal)

A local soccer player and coach are concerned newcomers to Winnipeg don't have the opportunity to play elite level soccer, which could pivot some from the draw of street gangs.

When Omar Rahimi — an immigrant from Iraq — arrived in Winnipeg in 2001, soccer was the first thing he pursued. He went to Gordon Bell High School and played there, and then went on to play in the premier division for about eight years.

The sport transformed his new life in Canada, he says.

"Many of my good friends are from soccer. It was the best part of my transition. If not for soccer, I don't think I would be doing this good," he says, adding the sport also makes it easier to cope with stress.

Many people who live in neighbourhoods that are hot spots for gangs are newcomers to Canada and their children are often targeted for recruitment, according to Winnipeg police.

Rahimi added the sport made it easier to cope with stress.

With more and more refugees settling in Winnipeg, Rahimi says the demand for soccer is growing with more teams, more players, and more programs.

Birkh Rai (5) gets ready to make a move on a defender during the first half of a Manitoba Major League Soccer game on Nov. 5. (Nolan Kowal)

But he says the quality and skill level of the sport hasn't gone up, largely because not every newcomer gets the opportunity to play.

"The quality is still not there, the coaching is not there," says Rahimi. "It saddens me that there is not enough resources and coaches and funding. It's just a waste.

"And a lot of kids go the wrong way because there's nothing in soccer for them. We don't have a professional team in Winnipeg, we've got nothing to look up to. A lot of kids don't have a reason to play past 18 or 19."

So, in addition to running a house-painting business, Rahimi is working to connect other refugees with soccer — a sport he says is as popular in the Middle East as hockey is in Canada.

He runs a team in the Manitoba Major Soccer League made up almost entirely of refugees, with only one player born in Canada. There are six from Syria, six from Nepal, three from Afghanistan, three from Africa, and one from the Philippines.

Although he tries to get funding from the Axworthy Community Charter Fund, Rahimi this year used $4,000 from his painting business to support his soccer team. It's getting tougher to make ends meet, he says.

"I'm thinking right now about giving up the team because I lost a lot of money this year," he says. "A lot of the guys, they just came [to Canada] and they don't have money to pay for the fees, and they don't have a car."

'Failing the inner city and core youth' 

Gololcha Boru, who coaches the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba's (IRCOM) youth soccer team, agrees with Rahimi in that many newcomers can't afford the costs of playing recreational soccer, never mind playing at the premiere level.

"They just fall out of it and they go to other means of survival," he says. "Then they fall through the traps, they go to the underground economy, they find other things to do and it's a shame."

Some of the players Boru coaches at IRCOM go on to play with Rahimi at the senior men's level. Boru says that in order for refugees to continue on with soccer, the Manitoba Soccer Association (MSA) needs to give newcomers more access to adequate soccer programs.

"Right now the district system, where they have Bonivital and St. Charles — it's really failing the inner city and core youth who are a large congregation of newcomers," he says.

Basketball Manitoba has a better system that the MSA could look at, Boru says.

"They have funding pools for all sorts of kids and they keep the basketball costs relatively low," he says. "They make an effort to get the kids out there, they spot the talent, and then once they identify the talent they are willing to work with the youth."

For soccer, however, many of the best youth soccer players in the city are in the core area, Boru says, adding that district teams don't recognize their talent, though, because they never see them play.

This is one in a series of stories written for CBC Manitoba by Red River College journalism students that looks at ways conflict abroad has shaped Winnipeg.

Other stories in the series: