ALBANY — The hot, late-May sun bore down on Hoffman Park Wednesday evening as a group of kids sprinted up and down the field, skillfully maneuvering the soccer ball that seamlessly danced from foot to foot.
“Pressure, pressure, pressure!” the coach, Ali Abdalla, yelled from the sidelines. More of his players were observing the game alongside him, a symphony of different languages floating through the air as they laughed and joked with each other.
Back on the field, looks of concentration and worry were etched on the players’ faces as they focused on maintaining possession of the ball, while being careful to not hurt the opposing team.
They passed the ball back and forth to each other, advancing further down the field. Thin Myat drew his foot back and took a shot. The goalie blocked, bouncing the soccer ball toward Alameen Alhassan, who then took a forceful kick that cut into the goal at a sharp angle. A rupture of applause punctured the tense air for a brief moment of relief.
Alhassan’s goal was one of four that won the RISSE (Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus) Soccer Team Wednesday’s game against the New Scotland Eagles 4-1, advancing them from level 16 to level eight in the Capital District Youth Soccer League. The RISSE Soccer Team has only lost one game in the past two years, but Abdalla says the accomplishments the team has achieved since he created it in 2015 go beyond wins and losses.
“We’re having fun, and the kids are safe,” Abdalla said. “They’re doing a lot of improvement, are a lot better in school, and personality-wise they’re doing a lot better.”
Abdalla, who bounced between Sudan and Albany growing up, decided to create the team when he noticed the kids at RISSE were playing soccer in the playground — and they were talented. (RISSE didn’t have activities for the kids at the time). Already a coach with the Albany Soccer Club, Abdalla received enthusiastic responses from staff and parents when he proposed the idea to incorporate the kids into the club.
Now, the RISSE Soccer Team consists of 19 players — 13- and 14-year-old kids from Burma, Syria, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malaysia and Yemen. The bond between the boys is impossible to miss.
But to be on the soccer team — which is financially sustained through donations and sponsorships — the kids have to follow strict rules set up by Abdalla: their grades have to stay up, they’re not allowed to speak negatively toward or around each other, and they are required to welcome new refugee students at their school with tours and company for at least a few days. Nine of his players, Abdalla said, are honor roll students.
“I’m trying to drag them from their childhood to adulthood where they can understand what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good for them,” Abdalla said. “Right now I’m being a parent, coach, friend, everything to them.”
He plans to coach the same team all the way until college, and his face lights up as he talks about the futures he dreams for his players: careers as engineers, doctors and lawyers.
Francis Sengabo, operations director of RISSE, said many of the kids “need help physically, mentally, emotionally.” The soccer team, he and Abdalla said, prevents them from falling victim to what they would be exposed to on the streets by holding the kids accountable, keeping them busy and building strong relationships in their lives.
And sometimes, the kids have to deal with racism from opposing teams. Abdalla recalled a player who said, “We can’t lose against these black and Asian kids.”
Support RISSE Soccer Team
To donate to the RISSE Soccer team, make a donation at http://www.risse-albany.org, and type “Restricted for the soccer team.”
“Whenever they feel down, I just tell them there are good and bad people everywhere,” he said. ” ‘Just play soccer and be happy.’ “
Klue Thaw said he’s been playing soccer for as long as he can remember. Now, the 13-year-old plays right-mid on the RISSE Soccer Team.
“It’s fun, it’s playing with friends,” he said. “We’re a family outside of a family.”