Reaching out to the refugee community with the love Christ.

Vickery United: the Dallas soccer club for America’s refugees

Love Is Ministry Dallas soccer Photograph: Love Is Ministry

Love Is Ministry Dallas soccer Photograph: Love Is Ministry

by Bryan Kay in Dallas (Posted on The Guardian on June 16, 2015)

Had Alex Nishimwe not got involved with Vickery United, he might have ended up like a forlorn old friend. Alex wears the demeanour of the wary, the life experience of several lifetimes crammed into his 16 years. Momentarily, he is unflinching: “I think I would be a street boy.”

His old buddy confronts a familiar daily existence. He sleeps rough in a place where drugs are within easy reach, alcohol a waystation in pursuit of a good night’s rest.

It’s a salutary tale for Alex. He and his friend possess similar backstories. Both arrived in the United States as refugee children, fleeing strife and war at home. From there they diverge. While his friend carries his entire world on his back, Alex holds a tableau of possibilities. He remains in school, obsessed with math, science and history. His family takes centre stage, and the quest to secure a scholarship in college is foremost in his mind. But he looks to soccer as his escape.

The contrast between Alex and his old friend is also important to Vickery United founder Danny Domingo. The friends are just two of the many refugees from across the world who at one time or another have called the north Dallas enclave of Vickery Meadow home.

Vickery United hopes to fill the void. Part Christian mission, part social service, Domingo and a team of volunteers are in the budding stages of developing two teams and a broader swell of aspirants into a youth soccer club.

Under the auspices of the Vickery Meadow-based Love Is Ministry, the root goal is to provide access to a sport which for financial reasons might otherwise be beyond their family means. They are now doing so with a significant pair of secret weapons. US national soccer personalities Zach and Casey Loyd are the double-headed fountain of the Vickery United coaching team.

They might be best referred to as a footballing power couple. But not because they’ve both represented USA at full national team level. Nor because they have played at the highest level of domestic soccer, Zach with FC Dallas in Major League Soccer and Casey most recently with Kansas City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. The most glowing commendation comesfrom Domingo, the man who brought them on board at time when he didn’t even know they were professional soccer players.

“When they started getting more and more involved, they said: ‘Danny, this is the highlight of our week,” Domingo remembers. “We play soccer and all that, but we’re looking forward to being with these boys.’ And that was a blessing for me to hear. It’s about making a difference in the lives of the kids.”

Professional soccer players are not always lauded for their selflessness. Even the philanthropic efforts of the Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid superstar who donates a chunk of his fortune and time to charity, might pale in the shadow of the grassroots efforts of the Loyds. The nature of the Vickery Meadow community means it acts as a re-settlement point. Refugee families move on. That means Vickery United players who first joined while resident in the area can later be marooned in other parts of the sprawling Dallas metroplex without access to transport for training and games. So the Loyds stepped in.

Zach Loyd in action for FC Dallas. Photograph: Reuters

Zach Loyd in action for FC Dallas. Photograph: Reuters

Selling their small family vehicle, they replaced it with a van, Domingo explains, in order that they might help ferry members of the team. “Me and my wife, a couple of years ago, we were looking for a way to work in the community with soccer. We both have been blessed with the gift of playing professionally. We love kids, so we’re like, you know, how can we use soccer to impact kids’ lives and help out in the community,” explains 27-year-old Zach.

When the Loyds arrived, Vickery United were a recreational league team with some individual technical ability but not much tactical discipline or organization. Since, they have stepped up a level to competitive youth soccer in the nearby, middle-class suburb of Plano. In their first season against longer established and better-equipped teams they competed commendably. Zach handles the centre-backs and full-backs. Attacking play is coordinated by his 26-year-old wife Casey, the daughter of Victor Nogueira, once of Premier League Newcastle United and better known as a goalkeeper with North American Soccer League outfit Chicago Sting and indoor outfit San Diego Sockers.

Zach is quick to redirect the spotlight back on to Domingo. “Danny is the vision behind it. It actually started – he lives in Vickery Meadow – when he was out walking and just praying about: ‘What can I do here to help the community.’ And he said when he was walking and praying he noticed that all the kids were playing soccer but they all spoke a different language. And he was like, wow, that ball can bring all these kids together.”

Domingo’s role is even more nuanced. When he first arrived in Vickery Meadow as an emissary of a Dallas seminary in 2008, it was a Burmese refugee of the Karen ethnic group who beseeched him to appeal to the area’s youth. That, the local told him, would help the community and break down barriers between not only the myriad nationalities present but also the intra-national rivalries. The ethnic Karen would know. He had fled Burma to Thailand during the civil war.

Domingo started with English classes and some Bible study. Then, in 2009, he stumbled into the moment that set the course for the soccer club. He spotted an African boy of unknown nationality and a cohort of Burmese extraction kicking around a ball, unable to utter a legible word to each other but completely fluent with one another in football. Much of the social success of Vickery United can be framed in those terms. Notions of caste among Nepalese youth and age-old ethnic bitterness between the kin of the Burmese youngsters appear to be washing away in the bosom of the club.

More broadly, Domingo believes, the vultures that come the way of desperate, low-income Vickery Meadow have seen been subdued. Drugs and alcohol still step into the void among the wider refugee population. Seemingly insurmountable cultural differences, frustration, discrimination, poverty: each play a part.

Like the old friend of Alex, who once took part in Vickery United’s sister summer program. Before systemic family problems eventually led to the street, he took part in a mini-World Cup tournament staged each year, where youngsters are for once encouraged to identify with their national background. There was also the son of an Iraqi painter, once a famous artist under the regime of Saddam Hussein. In Vickery Meadow, he was reduced to alcoholism, unable to overcome what he had lost, Domingo says. Despite the struggles, Domingo, a genial Californian of Filipino origin, is convinced that with the first generation of Vickery United, a small step forward has been taken.

Alex is a refugee of Tanzanian extraction, via Burundi. He arrived as an eight-year-old along with his parents, two sisters and three brothers, his parents wishing for a better future for their children.

As the eldest, Alex carries extra responsibility.

He hopes to study at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a top school. If he’s lucky, he considers, he’ll make the college’s famed soccer team, once managed by former FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman.

But, for Alex, the challenges facing his family are never far from the surface. He had to forgo a summer soccer camp at the university. Family comes first. They have since moved on from Vickery Meadow, his own little version of the United Nations, where he learned to overcome isolation and language difficulties to make friends across borders. Cheap rent lures many of the displaced here to a level of sanctuary scarcely imaginable at home, whatever the scope of the drug pushers who lurk, and the vices that lure.

“At first, the challenge was being able to understand each other,” says Alex. “But now we have been playing with each for about five to six years, and right now there is nothing that can separate us.

“We might get mad at each other, but we are still friends, no matter what. We talk and now that we understand each other, it’s like our whole team is made of one person because we are one. We understand what we are going through. At first it was very hard, but as we got to understand why we are who we are, things started to change.”

It’s just this kind of outlook that the Loyds had in mind when they signed up to help. It was an unfamiliar scene for both Casey and Zach, players who enjoyed gilded youth careers and a college experience the envy of many at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, considered the top soccer school in the country.

The kids don’t pay to play. So fund-raising and reliance on philanthropy are key. FC Dallas has chipped in. So has US women’s national team friends of Casey, Tobin Heath among them. It’s tough, as Domingo found from the outset. On his own, a basketball fan who back then considered soccer a bore, relied on church friends and anyone who was willing to lend a hand.

At first, says Zach, any decent sized footprint of grass they could find became their base. “We’d put up little bow nets and we would run training, and at the end of training I would tell a personal story about my life that involves respect or character, just any kind of trait,” he explains. “And then Danny would share a Bible story. We did that for about six months, and we started getting 40-50 kids. We were like, we’re getting so many kids, why not turn this into a [proper] team. So that’s when we became Vickery United. We’ve been a team now for a year and a half. We started out in Garland in a rec league and we were beating teams 5-6-8 to 0. So since we won that league, we got invited to join the Plano Premier League. That’s a step up.”

This spirit would appear to run deep. A tale of détente between a newly arrived Nepalese child and a young African lad might just embody the Vickery United raison d’être. A fight had broken out after some play. A sucker punch had been thrown. The fresh-faced Nepalese kid, in-country just three weeks, landed in the hospital. The police were hovering. Domingo remembers the moment that speaks to the profound nature of the club’s existence. Initially, he thought, this was the end of his project, his ministry. Then, in the hospital, the fountain of youth intervened.

“All the volunteers were there. Then [the Nepalese kid] started opening his eyes and he was shocked. Because when he opened his eyes, he realized, wow, why are all these coaches and why are all these referees around me. They could have gone home. And then for the first time he realized we care about him, that this is not just about soccer. It’s about them,” he says.

“Then the police came. They asked if he wanted to press charges because they knew who did it. And he looked at the police officer and said, ‘What would happen to him if you get him?’ ‘Oh, I think he’s going to go to jail and then we are going to deport him back to Africa.’ And he says, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want him to be deported back. I’m a refugee, too.’”