Soccer tournament brings immigrants and refugees together

by Eric Ginsburg

Andrew Young and his wife Betsy Renfrew have been working with immigrants and refugees in Greensboro, particularly the Montagnard community, connecting with an array of people and organizations to build relationships and collaborate to address some of the issues immigrants and refugees face. YES! Weekly sat down with Young to learn more about what these communities are working on and how he’s been connecting with people he wouldn’t otherwise come in contact with.

One of the projects Young has been working on recently is helping facilitate an international soccer league for immigrants and refugees. In October, Bhutanese refugees and Nepalese immigrants played a game together, helping create a cross-cultural relationship through an idea that came from inside those communities rather than an outside agency or group. FaithAction, where Young is a board member, and the Community Foundation helped sponsor the event.

There hasn’t been a compelling reason for these communities to get together. Everyone was worried about fights. None of that happened and it was actually a really good environment. It was a big eye opener for me personally. From hearing from these communities, they go off and play in tournaments across the country, like a huge one recently in Atlanta.

There was a tournament with Montagnard and Hmong in Western North Carolina recently. A lot of this stuff has already been happening. [Besides soccer] they almost never get together on their own without an American faith-based organization calling the meeting and the immigrants and refugees attending.

Young said the communities agree they need a more regular practice space and playing field, and are excited about setting up games that would enable interactions with other communities they aren’t normally in touch with, like those from North Africa or Latin America. A number of immigrant and refugee communities have enough interest in soccer that they can foster multiple teams.

What we hear is people are broadly interested in playing each other and pooling their interests, but there really isn’t a forum for them to get together. Ultimately it comes down to how to communicate effectively with each other. There are different play styles internationally, and this is where some of the conflicts come in.

They don’t really need American intervention to tell them how to play soccer. If you need transportation to go to a health clinic it’s a huge deal, but when you need transportation to play soccer, it’s not a problem. They are far more enabled to look after their own interest than they are often given credit for. It’s being initiated by immigrants and refugees themselves and they are finding a way to talk about their larger issues. There’s self-interest in getting better by playing across groups. They’ve talked about creating a citywide international team with multiple groups on it to play other cities.

Soccer is one of the few examples where everyday people from the local immigrant and refugee populations come together rather than just leaders of various communities collaborating. Normally, the approach is quite different.

The historic model has been charity. It’s not to slam the resettlement agencies or anyone who’s been working on this. That model worked really well in the ’70s and ’80s because you only had a small trickle of people coming in. Montagnards were among the first and were a relatively small group. [American] families would do really great stuff [to support them] but once you hit a certain threshold it started stressing the system.

The people who my wife and I meet are diehard American community members and they’re in their eighties. They got involved through their churches in their fifties and they are still involved. The financial and time contributions of those people aren’t considered when we try to count how much money goes into resettlement.

It’s a really big tribute to the people of Guilford County, but how much does it actually cost? The scary thing to me is that when people like this leave the scene, what happens after that? These communities are really counting on people like [that] to come through. The agencies themselves would probably admit they can’t do it alone.

Most people in Greensboro who aren’t a part of an immigrant or refugee community have little interaction with or knowledge of this vast portion of our city. Sometimes Young feels like he’s reporting back from somewhere far away like the moon when he talks to other Americans about his experiences.

Folks have become aware of this huge open-air market that happens on I-85. We kind of know about that, or about going to Super G [on West Market Street]. It’s a great way to see about diversity, but how do you get the dialogue going within these communities? It’s been really exciting and challenging to work on.

Young and Renfrew are both artists and are interested in connecting with other artists in the immigrant and refugee communities as well as helping them obtain some of the things they need and recognition they deserve.

Betsy and I have been interested in the amazing weaving skills of the Montagnard women. These women are artists, not charity cases. They are just missing thread and a loom. You could assemble all the materials for a few bucks. It’s more than just textiles, it’s a key part of their culture. The only thing that has been standing in the way of these women doing a lot of stuff is thread. It seems like in Vietnam it’s become more of a tourist trade. Betsy is working to reframe the way we see this issue.

One of the best weavers out there is living in this hellhole [locally]. From our [Western] eyes we go, “Oh, that’s a pretty interesting ethnic blanket.” Trying to reframe her as an artist has been really difficult in this town. She’s been here 10 or 15 years, and she’s lit a torch for her community, and she’s in her seventies. People pigeonhole stuff. One woman came all the way from Bolivia to check out [this woman’s weaving].

We have all these amazing things in our area and we’re really slow to recognize it. Betsy has found more resonance in our state with people who study folklore — it’s embedded within a larger community and culture. Stuff like this is the most tragic. When it comes to stuff like culture, once you break that, they’re gone. Unless this stuff is organized and acknowledged, which is what Betsy has been trying to work on, it’s broken. To us as artists, that is the big tragedy.

Even though this area has the largest Montagnard population outside of their indigenous land and though they established a presence here years ago, Young said we still haven’t figured out a long-term plan for refugees and immigrants and don’t do enough to acknowledge their contributions to our area.

They know how to do all these things that we suburbanites are rediscovering. Just like [some women] have no thread, they have no land. If we want to torture people who have been tied to the land, I guess it would be putting these farmers and their families into apartments and waiting until springtime when they are used to getting their fields ready.

Young and Renfrew have gained a lot from their experiences with these communities too, both through organizations like the Montagnard Dega Association, Reading Connections and the Center for New North Carolinians but also through personal relationships. And those relationships have been rewarding.

I hang with these folks because they’re really interesting people.

In the past few years for both my wife and I, who are trained as studio artists, it’s been really interesting to see how we can collaborate with like minds we encounter and work with people we would not have encountered if we stuck to the usual studio artist model. It becomes a really, really interesting collaborative process.

Young drives around to neighborhoods in Greensboro that he never knew existed before, has been invited to a wedding celebration that took over an entire street off Summit Avenue and knows of all sorts of restaurants and people throughout the city.

If you want to get to know somebody, you have to be prepared to just hang out and have less of an agenda or mission. Unless you’re really going to be willing to spend the time and work with people on their cultural level, you’re never going to connect with people. If you have an open and honest interest, people are more than happy to sit down and work together, though there is a lot of fear to get over [particularly around deportation for some].

Young runs a blog full of information, pictures and ideas related to his work with immigrants and refugees in the area at He is currently working to pull together a group of healthcare professionals from the Montagnard community and Cone Health to address some of the health care issues faced by that community.