How soccer made refugees Americans

Scene from the documentary "One Team: The Story of the Lewiston High School Blue Devils"

Story highlights

  • Amy Bass: A former mill town in Maine adapted to its changing demographics with the help of a championship soccer team
  • Sports, a target for terrorism, is also a way to bring communities together, she writes

Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, is the author of "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." As the supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)That the first blasts of last Friday's attacks in Paris were heard outside Stade de France should not be a surprise. The French were hosting a "friendly" against Germany, with President Francois Hollande sitting among the passionate soccer fans.

From the massacre of the Israeli team at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 to the cancellation of the Dakar Rally in 2008 to the attack on the Boston Marathon in 2013, sporting events have been prime targets for terror for decades.
Tuesday, Germany canceled its own friendly against the Netherlands, citing "concrete intelligence" of potential bombs. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had planned on attending the game, affirmed that cancellation was necessary: "I was just as sad as millions of fans that this cancellation had to happen, but the security agencies took a responsible decision."
    Amy Bass
    As an already intense global conversation regarding terrorism escalated, news that one of the terrorists at Stade de France entered Europe by exploiting a Syrian refugee network created a political frenzy as to where the people who were fleeing this kind of violence in their everyday lives should go, with a slate of U.S. governors declaring that their states should be off limits.
    But perhaps soccer, rather than serve as a pinpoint for terror, can serve as an example of what can happen in the face of a refugee crisis.
    Lewiston, Maine, is a former mill town that sits on the banks of the Androscoggin River and is largely Quebecois in heritage. Two weeks ago, the high school brought home the city's first state boys soccer championship. And they did it with a team that includes players from Congo, Kenya, Turkey, Germany and Somalia.

    A refugee debate

    Somali migration put Lewiston at the center of a refugee debate some 15 years ago, when the U.S. government looked to resettle thousands of Bantus -- the ethnic minority in Somalia -- in American cities.
    In 2002, then-Mayor Laurier Raymond spoke out against the influx of immigrants, which launched a battle in the community between those who supported the new residents and those who felt they had no business being there.
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    The city has grappled with its identities, from its economic downturn to becoming host to a whole lot of Africa and beyond. It has not, by any means, been a painless transition.
    Soccer has been a microcosm of that process. Seven members of the championship team came from the same refugee camp. They knew each other before becoming classmates and teammates.
    When Abdikadir Negeye co-founded the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine in 2008, he did not imagine a state championship for kids who sat before him, never mind an undefeated, nationally ranked squad.
    "When we started as an organization," he told me, "we just wanted to keep those kids off the street." The key, says Negeye, was pairing the homework help program with soccer: -- kids had to complete their schoolwork before taking the field.
    "We were trying to just get them ready for high school, teach them social skills. That's what makes them a good team now -- they know how to work together," he says. "Now they are champions."

    Embracing change

    Ian Clough played soccer for Coach Mike McGraw when he was at Lewiston High School. Now an independent filmmaker, he has returned to Lewiston for a documentary project entitled "One Team: The Story of the Lewiston High School Blue Devils." For Clough, soccer is at the center of Lewiston's ability to understand and, indeed, embrace its changing demographic landscape.
    "This is about the game," Clough told me, "and how these kids came from these refugee camps to a completely different country. But they still had this sense of normalcy by being able to play soccer." It is the players, says Clough, who understand it most clearly. "'Why are we refugees that won?' they ask. 'Why can't we be high school students who won?'"
    In Clough's documentary, McGraw talks about how early on, the Somali players got ready on a different part of the field from the rest of the team. He put an end to it quickly. "I want you guys to come over here in the middle," he told them. "This is how a team plays, this is how I want you to be on the field and off the field: together."
    Clough credits McGraw as the key that helped knit this group -- and their families and neighbors -- together. "All of the kids on the team use words to describe him as a father figure," he says. "He couldn't be more important to the refugee community in Lewiston."
    Negeye agrees. On November 7 at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland, he found the championship game against Scarborough to be an emotional experience. "You can't imagine how many people were there," he told me. "White, black, all around, cheering for them. There is still division, but it's better than it was before." Clough agrees. "The fan base is amazing, absolutely incredible," he says. "It is a total hodgepodge of the community, and not just in terms of the students."
    It would be tough to overstate the importance of soccer in these community relations. "They play so well -- it takes time but when they play well together it's a thing of beauty," McGraw told me. "The game is a universal language that all adhere to."
    Thus, in a state not known for its diversity -- The Onion once ran the headline "African-American Boycott of L.L. Bean Enters 80th Year" -- soccer has been a critical element in Lewiston's ability to forge relationships in a quickly changing population. It is an example the world might pay attention to as the crisis in Syria continues.
    At Wembley Stadium on Tuesday night, 70,000 soccer enthusiasts joined together to sing La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France. English fans had been asked before the match to learn the words of the opponent's anthem in order to make them feel welcome and supported.
    It's the beautiful game.