Soccer: Salve for struggling neighborhood of immigrants

A kid kicks a soccer ball at his brother.
Ten-year-old Kevin Otero kicks a soccer ball at his brother, 6-year-old Christopher, while playing on a new soccer field in Rochester's Meadow Park neighborhood on Aug. 7, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

On one of those perfect mid-summer nights in Rochester, Minn., kids gathered outside a church in the city’s Meadow Park neighborhood to test a new soccer field.

Ariana Hernandez, 6, was among them. She joked that she’s better at the game than her dad, Humberto.

“That’s why I always beat you, papa,” she teased him before running off to kick the ball.

The new soccer field is the first big project of the Meadow Park Initiative, a new community organizing effort aimed at building trust, safety and stability in a neighborhood where Somali-American and Latino immigrants have come together from opposite sides of the globe to build their lives in America.

Meadow Park has been in the news this year for gun violence and drug related assaults at neighborhood addresses.

Humberto Hernandez, who emigrated from Mexico, welcomes the community organizing effort in his neighborhood.

"I felt like we were left behind out of the whole Rochester,” he said. “We know that there's somebody that's looking at us."

Humberto Hernandez plays soccer with neighborhood kids.
Humberto Hernandez says the community organizing effort is welcome in his neighborhood. He is coaching neighborhood kids on how to play soccer.
Evan Frost | MPR News

According to the state demographer’s office, the Latino population in Rochester has grown more than 150 percent since 2000. The Somali-American population has grown more than 200 percent in that span.

And those numbers are expected to continue growing as the Destination Medical Center economic development plan expands the city and its workforce.

Community organizer Hindi Elmi and a Spanish-speaking colleague have been working in the neighborhood for about a year, and their hope is to replicate the model in other parts of the city.

They host weekly community meetings, and so far have helped residents organize a litter campaign and work with the management of nearby apartment complex to secure more regular trash pickup.

Elmi said safety is a key concern that's come up over and over, but improving safety requires building trust among the people living there. It's an idea Elmi imported from the small community where she lived in Somalia.

"When you know your neighborhood, you build the trust,” she said. “When someone gets sick, gets married, someone dies, we come together."

Elmi says it is much harder for immigrants to cultivate relationships in America.

"To know your neighborhood in this country is hard,” she said. “People are busier, people have a different culture than what we have. So, we want to build trust."

High school student Hanna Roble lives in Meadow Park and was born in the U.S. after her parents immigrated from Somalia. She's been busy organizing teams to play at the field, and says kids and adults living here have never had a safe place to play their favorite sport.

She believes the field can bring together people who might not otherwise interact.

A large group of men and boys play soccer in front of a church.
Community members play soccer on newly donated fields in Rochester's Meadow Park neighborhood.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Not only does it cross cultural barriers, but it's also generational,” she said. “Parents from different countries and even diaspora over here can bond over soccer."

This approach to community organizing isn't novel but it is new for Rochester, said Armin Budimlic, executive director of the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association. The organization for decades has helped immigrants settle here, and is funding the Meadow Park Initiative. He said previous efforts aimed at integrating refugees and immigrants in Rochester offered one-size-fits-all solutions.

He said this effort asks residents what they need to feel at home here, and what sort of life they want for their kids — and then gives them the support to make those things happen.

Budimlic, who immigrated to Rochester in the mid-1990s after fleeing Bosnia during the war, says it's a model that is capable of producing long-term solutions.

"If we help residents to create solutions, then they will own solutions and they will be proud of those solutions, and they will be more sustainable, long-term,” he said.

As the sun starts to go down, the crowd dissipates and heads home. Later that night, police will respond to a shooting just blocks away from the fields — underscoring the neighborhood's challenges and need for solutions.

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