Through Soccer, Teen Migrants Rebuild Lives And Get Chance To Meet Pope

Aug 31, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 6:17 am

After sitting down with President Obama, addressing Congress and speaking at the United Nations, Pope Francis will meet with some unique soccer players in New York City in September.

They're migrant teenagers in a youth soccer program co-sponsored by New York's Catholic Charities.

Many of them fled Central America and entered the U.S. illegally among the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border last year. Now, they are living with relatives or other sponsors in the U.S., waiting for immigration court hearings to determine if they can stay.

For Carlos Alfaro, 19, the chance to spend some time with Pope Francis — along with other immigrants during the pope's stop at a Catholic school in New York — is an unexpected opportunity after leaving his family in Honduras two years ago for the U.S.

"I'm here so I can help my family and get support for them, all of my family, my brothers and sisters," Alfaro says.

Spending Saturday afternoons on the field in cleats and shorts is now his weekly ritual in New York.

"Soccer is my passion," he says. "I play soccer when I can."

So do about three dozen of his teammates, some of whom are applying for asylum, according to Elvis Garcia Callejas, a migration counselor at the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York.

"Soccer in a way makes them forget everything," says Garcia Callejas, who helps coach the team with staff from South Bronx United, an organization that runs youth soccer programs in New York. "Sometimes you see them in immigration court really worried, and then you come see them play soccer. They are kids again."

Garcia Callejas was once a 15-year-old kid himself from Honduras. Before he became a U.S. citizen, he says he hitchhiked and rode on tops of trains alone to escape violence and find better opportunities like this younger generation of unaccompanied minors.

"A lot of them have come to the U.S., looking for a safe place. A lot of them have come because they want to reunify with their parents. A lot of them came because they were too poor in their country," he says.

But at least for a few hours on the fields across from Yankee Stadium, the drama is focused on the soccer pitch — or on the sidelines, where second-stringers often stomp and groan while they wait for their turn to play.

Garcia Callejas says some of his players have used their downtime to prep for the pope's visit, looking into the Buenos Aires soccer club San Lorenzo, the pope's favorite team.

Eighteen-year-old Ariel Mejia says he's seen Pope Francis downplaying his soccer skills in a recent interview with TyC Sports of Argentina. "He says he's terrible," Mejia recalls with a laugh.

Still, Cristhian Contreras, 16, says he's looking forward to meeting the head of the Catholic Church. That's because, Contreras explains in Spanish, "the pope's from the Americas, and he speaks Spanish."

But that's not all the pope and these teenagers share. There's also their passion for the beautiful game.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Soccer is the favorite sport of Pope Francis. So when the Pope visits the United States next month, he is said to meet with some unique soccer players in New York City.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

They're migrant teenagers in a program cosponsored by New York's Catholic Charities. Many of them fled Central America and entered the U.S. illegally, and they are now waiting for court hearings to determine whether they can stay in the U.S. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang caught up with some of them on the soccer pitch.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Saturday afternoon on the field is a weekly ritual for 19-year-old Carlos Alfaro.

CARLOS ALFARO: I play soccer all my life. Soccer is my passion, so I play soccer when I can.

WANG: And so do about three dozen of his teammates. Some are among the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who for now are living with relatives in the U.S. And a few of them are expected to meet Pope Francis, who will spend some time with immigrants in New York after speaking at the UN and the 9/11 Memorial. For Carlos Alfaro, the chance meet the Pope is an unexpected opportunity after leaving his family in Honduras two years ago for the U.S.

ALFARO: Here, I can find opportunity - I can work. Get the college - start my life like everybody wants.

ELVIS GARCIA CALLEJAS: (Speaking Spanish).

WANG: Elvis Garcia Callejas helps coach the team on the weekends. During the week, he's a migration counselor at the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of the sponsors of the soccer program.

CALLEJAS: Soccer, in a way, makes them forget everything. Sometimes you see them in immigration court really worried, and then you come see them play soccer. They are kids again.

WANG: Garcia Callejas was once a 15-year-old kid himself from Honduras. Before he became a U.S. citizen, he said he hitchhiked and rode on tops of trains alone to escape violence and find better opportunities - a lot like this younger generation of unaccompanied minors.

CALLEJAS: A lot of them have come to the U.S. looking for a safe place. A lot of them have come because they want to reunify with their parents. A lot of them came because they were too poor in their country.

WANG: But here in the South Bronx, at least for a few hours in the fields across from Yankee Stadium, the drama is focused on the field or on the sidelines where you can hear the second stringers groan and stomp, waiting for their turn. Garcia Callejas says some of his players have used their down time to prep for the Pope.

CALLEJAS: They have been looking up into San Lorenzo, which is the soccer team that the Pope loves.

WANG: It's his favorite team?

CALLEJAS: Yeah, in Argentina.

WANG: 18-year-old Ariel Mejia watched Pope Francis downplaying his soccer skills in a recent interview with TyC Sports of Argentina. The Pope said he's a terrible player.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).

ARIEL MEJIA: Oh yeah, I watched this video. Yeah, I watched the video. He said he's terrible. (Laughter).

WANG: Still, 16-year-old Cristhian Contreras says he's looking forward to meeting him.

CRISTHIAN CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

WANG: "Because," he says in Spanish, "the Pope's from the Americas and he speaks Spanish." But that's not all this pope and these teenagers on the soccer field share.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Cheering).

WANG: There's also that passion for the game. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) New York City, New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.