Soccer fields bridging cultural divide in Trois-Rivières

The Trois-Rivières soccer club has invited in children of families new to Canada to help with their integration into the city.

Newcomers welcomed into soccer league free of charge

Ghioud 8, Aathary 9, Ariam, 10, and Raghad Al Basha,11, are all smiles in their soccer uniforms. (Rebecca Martel/CBC )

Soccer has become quite an event at the Al Basha household. The family, which includes five girls under 12, settled in Trois-Rivières two years ago after fleeing the war in Syria.

Now, twice a week, four of them put on their uniforms and hit the soccer field.

"I've met so many new friends," said the eldest, Raghad. 

For the past two years, 20 children from families who recently immigrated to Quebec have been given a spot on one of the 66 teams of the Trois-Rivières soccer club's summer league.

They come from the Middle East, Africa and Indonesia.

Their registration fees are covered by the league and the equipment and transportation covered by other families within the league.

"The response has been very good," said Jean-Francois Hardy, the club's vice president.

"I have a lot of allies in the club, a lot of people know me. So I started by approaching the people I know and after that when you see people wanting to help, others join in. It goes fast."

The Al Basha sisters waiting for their ride to go play soccer. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

At 11 years old, Raghad Al Basha is the most troubled by the family's past. She was old enough to remember what happened during the war and the family's escape.

Sometimes on the streets or at school, Raghad said she feels like people are staring at her or hears them calling her names, but on the soccer field, she's free.

Raghad and Ariam, the next of the Al Basha sisters, play on the same team.

Soccer is the place where they succeed and where, they say, they feel fully accepted. 

The program to integrate children from immigrant families has been welcome by players and parents. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

Finding ways to fit in

That feeling of freedom and acceptance Raghad and her sisters describe was made possible with the help of a few people determined to help newcomers feel at home.

Francine Gelinas is one of those people. She's retired, but volunteers long hours at the centre for newcomers in Trois-Rivières. She has a vision. She believes it's everyone responsibility to welcome new Canadians into the community. 

"I want Québécois to meet and to talk with them, but they won't do it because we're all shy," she said.

Gelinas believes people are just too busy living their lives and too intimidated to care for someone outside of their circle.

She made it her mission to change that and thought bringing immigrants to the weekly soccer meetings could help bridge the gap.

Huan Zxebastian Panela, Daniel Bigirimana and Fisal Mohamed with their teammates. All three arrived in Trois-Rivières within the last few years. (Rebecca Martel/CBC )

Soccer is a universal language

Daniel Bigirimana, Fisal Mohamed and Huan Zxebastian Panela all arrived in Trois-Rivières within the last few years.

The three nine-year-old boys are all smiles on the field and, even as beginners to the sport with the added challenge of the language barrier, they still manage to get the ball and pass it around.

Making good passes is what the right winger Huan Zxebastian likes the best. His mom, Beverly Panela, tries to come see him play as often as possible.

She sees how beneficial the program has been for her son.

Huan Zxebastian Panela dodges a player from the other team during a game in Trois-Rivières. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

"He enjoys it and he's also integrating with the other kids and he made friends too."

She's grateful her son could have the opportunity to play free of charge.

Their budget is often stretched to the max and leisure activities get pushed down the priority list.

The Al Bashas also say the program might not have been a possibility for their girls if the cost hadn't been covered. Now Samahir Al Basha is hoping her girls will be able to stay in the league for the long run.

"I love soccer, because I see what it does in my girl's life. I see how they feel playing and I want that for them."

Samahir and Hakem Al Basha hope their girls continue to play soccer. The family, who escaped war in Syria, says the sport has brought them great joy. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)