Love of soccer bridges huge cultural divides in diverse Michigan city


Originally published in English by USA Today.

Photo: David Leins for Round Earth Media

Love of soccer bridges huge cultural divides in diverse Michigan city

HAMTRAMCK, Michigan — With two boys in maroon soccer jerseys in the back seat of her SUV, Maria Martínez navigates slippery, pot-holed streets past the chain-link fencing of a General Motors assembly plant slated for closure, multi-lingual awnings of Yemeni restaurants and Polish bakeries, a green-and-white brick neighborhood mosque and the neon signs of a hipster bar.

She stops on a street lined with simple two-story duplexes in a working-class neighborhood. Saleh Alhalmi hustles out his front door to join the boys in the back seat, Martinez’s son, Aaron, and another teammate.

Saleh, 11, was born in Yemen and came to the Detroit area four years ago, as his country was descending into what the United Nations since have described as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Within the hour, he will be racing around a soccer field inside the Detroit City Fieldhouse. He and his friend, Sammy Balwi, also a Yemeni, play on a newly formed youth team whose players are mostly Latinos from southwest Detroit.

Their presence on the team illustrates a love of sports that, in Detroit as in many other places around the world, brings people of different cultures together. More Yemeni players from Hamtramck are likely to join in the future.

The auto industry brought waves of immigrants to Detroit from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East in the early 20th century, and the area continues to attract new arrivals.

Hamtramck, a tiny city almost completely surrounded by Detroit, was once heavily Polish. But it has experienced an influx of immigrants from Yemen, Bangladesh and Bosnia over the past several decades – and more recently, young suburban renters who can’t afford trendier neighborhoods.

In 2015, Hamtramck became the first U.S. city to elect a Muslim-majority city council. Its welcome sign proclaims: “The World in Two Square Miles.” But even here, many people are more comfortable sticking within their own communities than crossing cultural boundaries.

Detroit City FC, a semi-pro soccer team, is providing Hamtramck’s youth a new opportunity to interact with kids from other backgrounds. Since it was founded seven years ago, the team has reached out across the metro area in an effort to build its reputation as a grassroots organization. It chose Hamtramck’s historic Keyworth Stadium as its home turf in 2015, crowdfunding an initiative to renovate the venue located in a municipal park where Negro Leagues stars like Satchel Paige played before major league baseball integrated.

The club’s new youth initiative created four teams, and offers year-round training at reduced cost. Saleh’s and Aaron’s parents seized the chance to make sure their boys had an opportunity they themselves never had – to play organized soccer.

Martinez, who arrived from the Mexican state of Jalisco in 1997, knows that as a boy her husband had to work instead of playing soccer. She left her full-time job and shifted to part-time work so she could take Aaron to practice and games. Saleh’s father, Salah Alhalmi, couldn’t play on an organized team growing up in rural Yemen. These days, he often is too busy working fulltime for Chrysler or part-time on a heating-and-cooling gig to attend his son’s games. But he’s thrilled Saleh has the chance to play and grateful that when he can’t drive Saleh, Martinez has volunteered to take him.

The Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, Mich., is home to the Detroit City semi-pro soccer team, here on Feb. 2, 2019. (Photo: David Leins for Round Earth Media)

“I appreciate that a lot,” he said. As an immigrant, he doesn’t have a lot of time off, he added. He needs to put in long hours to make a living.

While they both speak somewhat limited English, Alhalmi and Martinez haven’t had trouble communicating about the carpool. “Saleh’s father, he speaks English,” said Martinez. “Maybe like me, maybe not very well, but we understand.”

“Sometimes we try to talk with Saleh in Arabic, and we use the phone to translate it,” she chuckled. “We know two or three words in Arabic …as-salaamu alaykum!” (peace be with you).

Detroit City FC, nicknamed Le Rouge, quickly became a wildly popular local phenomenon, with a rowdy following from the Metro Detroit area known for its irreverent cheers and red smoke bombs. Last fall, it set up a partnership with Detroit PAL, a nonprofit, to offer training for boys and girls at a modest $300 a year. The team Saleh, Sammy and Aaron play on is one of those it sponsors within the Michigan State Developmental Soccer League.

“Ideally, we’re targeting a lot of inner-city kids, kids who financially can’t play for the bigger clubs, but have the talent,” said Javi Bautista, a former Le Rouge player who now coordinates the team’s youth initiatives. “The idea is, one day in the future, have some of these kids step on the field as a Detroit City FC player.”

The Spanish-speaking Bautista found it relatively easy to reach out to Latino parents in southwest Detroit, home of a neighborhood known as Mexicantown. But despite City’s presence at Keyworth Stadium, it has been slower going with the immigrant communities in Hamtramck. “I think it’s difficult because a lot of these communities tend to stick together, so oftentimes it’s hard to kind of gain their trust,” he said.

Bautista would like to expand community outreach, and bring a more diverse coaching staff on board to target different communities.

Even though it celebrates diversity, Hamtramck is not entirely free of conflict.

At the local Dickinson East elementary school last year, about a third of the conflicts reported were between students of different ethnic backgrounds, said Gaia Klotz, cofounder of a social-emotional learning program called Peace Culture. A majority of the students enrolled in an associated after-school program are immigrants, who may be dealing with trauma, adjusting to a new culture and language, or a history of oppression, she said.

The DCFC youth soccer teams plays at the Detroit City Fieldhouse in Detroit, Mich., on Jan. 19, 2019. Detroit City FC set up a partnership with Detroit PAL, a nonprofit, to offer quality soccer training at a modest price. (Photo: David Leins for Round Earth Media)

Nevertheless, they also demonstrate an ability to manage conflicts on their own, she said, adding: “Organized sports can play a huge role in bringing youth together.”

Le Rouge is working with city and school officials who received an $800,000 Wilson Foundation grant for improvements to the park where Keyworth Stadium is located. More than half the money will go to replace the turf at the stadium, which Le Rouge shares with the local public schools. The team has given away free game tickets in Hamtramck schools, and players have volunteered to do school reading events.

Elsewhere in the Detroit area, communities are concerned that redevelopment plans frequently benefit outsiders more than established residents. Anam Miah, a Bangladeshi-American member of the City Council and mayor pro tempore, dismissed worries that might happen here. Young transplants might be attracted to mom-and-pop restaurants serving unique items like Bengali pizza and soul food egg-rolls, and property values are rising, but so far Hamtramck has avoided the gentrification tension that pits longtime residents against more affluent newcomers.

“The people that are spearheading the whole project (are) genuinely in it for the right reason,” Miah said. “They want to grow their team, they want to grow that sport, they want to make sure the community that they are in prospers along with them.”

A love for soccer and other sports is one key way the various ethnic communities of Hamtramck interact, he said.

Saleh’s father predicted more Hamtramck kids will be signing up for the team. “I think there are going to be lots of kids in the future,” he said. “All the kids in Hamtramck … love soccer.”

Saleh acknowledged he still isn’t as comfortable playing here as he was in Yemen. But he has made some friends here, even though the only Spanish he knows he picked up from Sammy, who was born in the U.S. “I know, like, español — that means ‘Spanish,’ Sammy said. “I know muy bien — that means ‘good’.”

The Yemeni boys don’t really need Spanish on the soccer pitch. “As far as soccer goes,” Bautista said, “it’s a universal language.”

Inside the fieldhouse one snowy morning, that language was expressed in the thud of foot meeting ball, coaches yelling and parents cheering. And there is the universal thrill of finding the back of the net, as Sammy did in a recent game: “I scored three goals – a hat trick!” he said.

“When the kids step onto the field,” said Bautista, “they don’t care if one’s from this country, and one’s from this country — or this neighborhood.”

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors young, international journalists. Its content was produced separately of USA TODAY.

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