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Former Winnipeg refugee using sport to help Canadian newcomers feel at home
When Omar Rahimi first came to Canada 15 years ago as a refugee, the one thing that felt like home, was being on the soccer field.
“I remember I used to tell my coaches, ‘Look, this is great. I can forget about everything, I get away from everything and I come and just play. I loved to go play soccer ’," he said.
Rahimi, who is Kurdish, was born and raised inside a refugee camp in Iraq. He said to pass the time he and the other kids would find a soccer ball or make one out of plastic and play in their bare feet.
He came to Canada when he turned 18 and quickly joined a team here in Winnipeg.
Now, he’s hoping to give dozens of young refugees who recently came to Winnipeg from Syria the same experience with the beautiful game.
"They love soccer,” he said. “Soccer is number one in the Middle East and in those countries that they came from."
On Friday night, Rahimi started the Liberty Football Club Soccer Academy as dozens of refugee children took to the pitch at R.A. Steen Community Centre.
Two nights a week newcomers to Canada can get a picked up by a bus, develop their soccer skills together.
“Tonight was a start of an amazing journey for these little kids,” he said. “To grow up in Winnipeg to be safe and live in a community that's peaceful and they can contribute to our society in good ways."
Rahimi first started Liberty FC last year with a men’s team. He said named the group ‘liberty’ because that’s what most players feel here in Canada.
"We can play together, girls, kids, men, in liberation. There is no difference, doesn't matter where you come from, doesn't matter what background, what religion, we play together."
This year, with the help of friends and community members, Rahimi has expanded the football club to include children ages 5 to 14.
"Through soccer we are trying to bring them in and get them involved," he said.
Majority of the children who came to Friday’s practice are government sponsored Syrian refugees, and many of them do not speak the same language.
"Even in Syria we have a lot of nations, we have Kurdish, Arabic, we have Assyrian, we have like seven languages inside Syria,” said Nour Leali from the Kurdish Association Of Manitoba.
“But when we are playing we are playing one language, sport language."
On the first night of practice, dozens of Liberty FC kids worked on passing, shooting and headers. Afterwards they scrimmaged, all wearing infectious smiles.
Through a translator, one girl told CTV she came to learn.
"I am really enjoying the program, and I’ve learnt a lot so far being here, and I’m thankful for the coaches."
Carolyn Trono, who helped organize the soccer academy, said learning sports and sportsmanship can play an even bigger role for kids who are integrating into a new country.
"If somebody is having a skating party and you can skate, then you can be part of the group. If you can play basketball you can be part of the group. But if you can't you sit on the sidelines," she said.
Rahimi hopes to expand the program by winter to include other North American sports, like hockey and swimming.