Aug. 13, 2011
BOSTON — Worcester, Mass. is a city of factories and mills, hospitals and universities. And immigrants. Nearly 15 percent, or 25,000 people, are newcomers and about half have come in the past 10 years.
Throughout the 20th century, Irish and Italians, Jews, and Arabs mixed in Worcester. Now, the immigrants are from Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Iraq and Iran. They occupy old neighborhoods and triple-deckers, just as the Irish and others did.
They also share the feeling of separation, isolation, and feeling on the fringe – except when they’re on the soccer field.
Starting Friday, Worcester will host an event that’s a hallmark of many American cities with burgeoning immigrant populations: a World Cup soccer tournament. (See more: schedules, ticket prices.)
Such competitions have been happening across the country, from Portland, OR to Lowell, MA. Worcester will host three days of matches culminating in the awarding of a trophy on Sunday.
Twenty teams — 16 men's teams and four women's teams — each representing a different country, will compete.
This is the 6th annual Worcester World Cup, and the person on whose shoulders this showcase rides on Laura Suroviak, a Connecticut-born English as a second language teacher, with bright eyes, a love for soccer, and a can-do attitude.
When Suroviak moved to Worcester, she’d look out her apartment window and see groups of men from Congo, Liberia, and Ecuador playing soccer on a tattered old school field. It was the only field they wouldn’t get kicked off of.
One day, she went out to join them. She earned their respect on the pitch, and eventually she had a brainstorm.
“It was spring of 2006 and there was lots of talk about men’s FIFA,” Suroviak said. “Somewhere along the way I said, ‘hey, we can do this in Worcester.’”
In its first year, a couple hundred spectators were in the stands. Now, they’re expecting up to 2,000 this weekend. But Suroviak says the event is about more than soccer.
For Christine Roa, a 26-year-old, first-generation Colombian, the focus is on getting recognition as a female athlete. As a star goalie, playing soccer in Worcester helps even out the dynamics between men and women, especially in a macho Latino culture. When she plays co-ed, the men call her a ‘devil’ on the field, which she considers a compliment.
For three boys from Burma, also known as Myanmar, soccer is a link to a normal life in a new home. Zing Nawl, Lian San, and Nang Piang are 17 and 18-years-old, in Worcester. They were in t-shirts and jeans and ready to practice for the Worcester World Cup. Like Suroviak, they grew up with the game of soccer.
But that’s where the similarity ends.
When life in Burma became too dangerous, the boys escaped to Malaysia. Life wasn’t easy there. They lived in refugee camps.
There was no time for school, only work. They were harassed and spent time in jail. The rest, they say, they don’t want to remember.
Since they’ve sought asylum in Worcester, soccer has re-entered their lives. Now it’s their tool to become part of the community. Zing says that many Burmese refugees here have trouble finding jobs because they can’t speak the language.
“When I visit them, the house is terrible,” Zing said. “They live terrible.” He hopes that when the mayor of Worcester and other city officials watch the Burmese team out on the pitch, recognition for his fellow immigrants, and help, will follow.
Laura Suroviak says that recognition us a huge payoff. “To hear the mayor, the city manager talk about communities they probably didn’t know existed until this event is a real victory for what we’re trying to do,” she said.
This story originally aired on PRI's The World.
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