NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The idea of soccer having its own unique international language is not an uncommon one. In fact, almost anywhere you are in the world, if you have a ball and people to play with, it’s not hard to find community among those you’re with.
At the Nashville International Center for Empowerment, an organization dedicated to ensuring refugees and immigrants achieve their full potential in Nashville, that’s certainly the case.
“Soccer is our biggest draw,” said Donna Pack, a longtime volunteer with NICE. “That’s the thing we do every week, we have some sort of soccer going on. My take is that peace will be found on a soccer field. It’s the one time it doesn’t matter if we have refugees from two opposing countries, different languages, different skin color, they come out here and play by one set of rules. And that happens every Saturday here.”
It also offers a chance to create bonds that stretch beyond the field and into the community.
This past Saturday, immigrants, refugees and volunteers from NICE were the guests of Nashville SC, which began its new Section 615 initiative at First Tennessee Park by welcoming a large contingent from the group to the club’s USL Championship game against Ottawa Fury FC. The night at the game followed NSC player Ropapa Mensah attending NICE’s celebration of World Refugee Day the previous Thursday.
Nashville SC forward and Ghana native Ropapa Mensah visited the Nashville International Center for Empowerment for World Refugee Day on June 20, playing 3v3 with the youngsters who play soccer regularly as part of their activities through the local organization.
An immigrant to the United States himself – Mensah arrived to play in the USL Championship as an 18-year-old ahead of the league’s 2017 season – the Ghanaian played three-on-three soccer with the youngsters the organization serves, many of whom are refugees.
Mensah was joined at the event by Nashville Mayor David Briley, who noted that the presence of soccer and Nashville SC can make life feel more normal for those who have arrived in the city as immigrants or refugees.
“One of the most important reasons for Nashville to bring soccer at the highest level to our city is because it’ll knit us together more as a community,” said Briley. “Everybody around the world, no matter where you’re from, knows soccer, or football as they call it in the rest of the world.”
Mensah’s 15th career goal in the Championship provided one of the highlights on Saturday night in a thrilling 3-3 draw played out before a crowd of almost 7,000 fans, especially for the new friends he’d made a couple of days before.
“A couple of days ago I was playing with him, 3v3 soccer,” said Naseem Abdullah, an immigrant from Malaysia. “Now I see him in real life scoring a real goal for the professional team. It just makes my day better.”
Nashville will welcome more groups to Section 615 as the season continues, providing a dedicated space at First Tennessee Park to groups that are doing good for others in the Nashville community. On Saturday night, the section got its first hero thanks to the connection made by Mensah and those that hope to someday follow him and wear NSC’s gold colors in the professional ranks.
“I think for them it means a lot,” said Reyna Varela, a NICE volunteer. “It’s something they will never forget, and they dream to be one of those players. They have a dream too, and some of them want to play soccer and want to dream to be out there playing soccer professionally.”
“Learning from him, it’s a big thing for me,” added Abdallah. “I don’t know how to explain it, but he’s motivating people, the people that love soccer, to chase their dreams wherever they are.”