Not Just Any Sport: Soccer means belonging for Des Moines refugee children

April 29, 2024

Des Moines Refugee Services changes children's lives by helping them get involved in soccer

*names of children have been changed

Mya couldn’t stop getting into physical fights with her fourth grade classmates.

She was constantly frustrated with her school work. She’d run out of her classroom, and sometimes, even out of the building. She had recently settled in the United States with her family as a refugee, and she didn’t know how to process her experiences. Her complex emotions manifested as anger. Her teachers were unsure of how to help her.

Less than a year later, things still weren’t perfect. But Mya had turned a corner. 

Her fifth grade teacher texted Des Moines Refugee Support (DMRS) Founder and Director Alison Hoeman to let her know that Mya had gotten into a fight again.

“Oh, crap,” Alison responded. 

“No, you don’t understand,” the teacher replied. “This is the first fight she’s had in a year. She used to get into a fight twice a week.”

What changed? Alison had helped Mya get into soccer. Mya now had an outlet for her energy. She was making friends and was surrounded by adults who cared about her. 

DMRS is a nonprofit in Des Moines that identifies and addresses service gaps for refugee and immigrant families. One of those services is to get children like Mya into soccer clubs and support them in participating fully. 

Alison says it’s often a lifeline for children who have dealt with so much before arriving in Central Iowa. 

“Soccer saves lives,” she said. 

Children connected to DMRS enjoy morning soccer games

A Familiar Friend

Alison has a long history of working with children born outside of the United States. 

She began her career as an ELL teacher on the east side of Des Moines. In 2016, she received notice that three young boys from the Democratic Republic of Congo were going to transfer into her school. The school needed to prepare for these students whose only language nobody else in the building spoke. 

The family ended up transferring into a different school, but through her preparation, Alison had learned they were in need of other material support. She asked around for donations for the family’s Christmas presents. She ended up with enough presents for ten additional families. 

Alison kept visiting those three boys and their family, taking them out to movies and helping whenever they needed it. Eventually, the boys told her they wanted to play soccer. 

She signed them up for a spring break camp with Drake University. On the second day, Alison asked a friend to drive the boys to camp, and the friend was met with a surprise.

“She called me and said, ‘um, there’s two other kids in this house that are dressed and ready to go,’” said Alison. “I said, ‘well do they fit in your car? Then we’ll make it work.’” 

Alison quickly realized that soccer was a familiar friend to these kids that were in such an unfamiliar place. The three boys from the original family excelled playing with Norwalk recreation and then West Des Moines club teams, one of them even going on to play soccer in college. 

Through referrals from Des Moines Public School teachers and kids telling their friends, Alison began to work with more and more kids. Last fall, she had 112 kids playing on different teams within the Des Moines Soccer Club. 

“We’ve tried to get them into other sports, and they always say, ‘No, soccer,’” Alison said. “We have some girls in a basketball clinic, and some boys in a weightlifting and strength training clinic. But soccer is just a universal language. Soccer is the world’s sport.”

Security and Stability

Alison recently sent out a survey to 57 of her kids to find out the impact soccer has on their lives. 

Most of the athletes agreed that soccer improved their mood and helped them make new friends. Their answers to the more open-ended questions solidified for Alison why soccer matters so much. 

She read off some of their responses:

“‘Soccer has helped me figure out how to solve problems on my own; ask adults for help; learn how to be a leader; learn how to control my temper; go to school every day; stay out of trouble.’” 

The students also shared what they thought they would be doing if they didn’t play soccer. 

“‘Nothing; sit at home every day; play video games; be sad,’” Alison shared. “I want people to see that it’s not just soccer.”

Kids playing soccer through DMRS are required to attend school, keep their grades up, and stay out of trouble. When soccer practice is the place where they feel the most at peace, they don’t want to jeopardize it. 

Alison has seen firsthand how the absence of an activity like soccer can lead a child down the wrong path. 

“We had one kid who quit soccer and joined a gang. But he showed up this past season to try out, and the coach cried when he saw he was back playing soccer,” she said. “Another coach had two kids playing for him that were best friends. One quit to join a gang, and the other now plays soccer in college. The college player still tells his old coach that soccer saved his life.” 

Soccer supports refugee children in making new friends in their new homes

More than anything, soccer provides a sense of security and belonging for these young kids who have experienced so much in their lives as refugees. Their parents often work second or third shift jobs to care for their families, and children often take care of their even younger siblings. Soccer is their time to simply be a kid.

Alison said it’s the one thing that connects their new home with their old home and helps them find stability in their new lives. 

“There’s often so much trauma that they often don’t know how to process,” she said. “Soccer is something familiar, but at the same time helps them meet new friends. There’s almost always someone on their team that speaks the same language as new kids, so they don’t have to worry about being understood. They get this outlet and have so many safe adults around helping them.” 

More than Just Soccer

Alison is the only paid employee of DMRS, and, as any person who has played on a traveling sports team knows, soccer takes a lot of time, money, and effort. 

She relies on an exceptional group of volunteers and supporters to ensure these children have the opportunity to play the game they love. 

Volunteers help her with everything from transportation, working with parents to get paperwork filled out, and ensuring each player has the necessary equipment and clothing to play. They keep the players fed, as well.

“We have four DART vans that take kids to practice three times a week after school so they can make it on time,” she explained. “But we realized they’d be at the fields from 4:15 on without anything to eat. So this past season, we fed them dinner Monday through Thursday for ten weeks.” 

One of DMRS' pre-practice dinners

Alison and her volunteers travel much farther than the Des Moines metro to get these kids to every opportunity. Last November, she took 75 boys to a tournament in Kansas City. She’s traveled to Memphis for a tournament and driven through a snowstorm this past January to get five boys to a tournament in Arizona. 

Alison has committed to not turning any refugee or immigrant child away from soccer. But cleats, balls, water bottles, uniforms, team clothing, and everything else involved in club soccer costs a lot of money. She often struggled to get people to donate money specifically for soccer, but she’s hopeful that if they understand the profound impact soccer has on these kids, they’ll understand why it’s so important. 

“Soccer is the biggest way that we feel like we can really get to the kids. They have positive role models and friends that they wouldn’t otherwise have contact with,” she said. “We can’t say no because it’s the whole point.”

These soccer players got to see the Grand Canyon during their Arizona trip

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.