Redeemer Cup Showcases Utica's Diversity
The sounds of sport filled the air in Utica this past weekend, but despite the time of year, it wasn’t the crack of the bat that was heard. More than 10 percent of the city’s population is made up of refugees, and they were playing a different game.
In Utica’s Proctor Park, between a baseball diamond and basketball court, several fields are full of sounds of the beautiful game.
It’s the sixth Redeemer Cup international soccer tournament, a sort of mini-World Cup in central New York. 15 teams competed this year, comprised of refugees and immigrants.
Paul Schilling is a pastor of the Redeemer Church, which runs the tournament.
"We've got Somali Bantu, we've got East Africa, we've got Iraq, we've got two different Karen teams," Schilling says.
Most of the players are from this city known for welcoming refugees. Schilling says the goal is for old and new Uticans to get to know their neighbors.
"Utica has over 25 different nationalities, some refugees, some immigrants, but they all know soccer, so we thought that's the common denominator."
The players have embraced the idea, making new friends and, says El Salvador midfielder Jose Mendez, getting reacquainted with old ones.
"Soccer, or as we say, football, brings people united, that's the beauty of it," Mendez said. "The Bosnian team we just faced, most of them were in high school with me."
Kareem Hamad is a nursing student here, by way of Iraq. He says he waits for the tournament every year.
"It's definitely beautiful the feeling I have, I couldn't sleep last night, I was so excited," Hamad said.
The games were played all weekend long on four side by side fields, with balls occasionally bouncing from one to another. Players hung out between games. Fans wandered from match to match. Many sat in bleachers under umbrellas to shield them from the sun.
Utica City Court judge Ralph Eannance was right behind the goal.
"I have some friends playing on at least two different teams that I've gotten to know these past few years," Eannance said. : I'm rooting for Iraq this game."
A few rows back, Nan Han was pulling for the other side.
"I'm cheering for the Redeemer Burmese team," Han said.
She’s a senior at Utica’s Proctor High, and will head to college next fall. The tournament she says, reveals something about her adopted city.
"It tells me that we're not afraid to be together," she said. "We're not afraid of our differences."
But this tournament is not all brotherly love. Make no mistake, on the field, these guys want to win, says Jose Mendez.
"It's serious," Mendez says. "People take it to the fullest, to the heart."
And listen to the coach of the Somali Bantu team.
"I really can't talk right now, after the game you can interview me, because my pressure is up!"
As one fan said, the ball is a circle so you never know who is going to win. This year the Iraq team came out on top.
David Chanatry is with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College at www.nyrp-uc.org