One day last winter Ron Graham ’78 left the snowy farmland and comfortable homes of North Yarmouth, Maine, to fill slots on the roster of his Seacoast United Maine soccer club, an elite team for 15-year-old boys.
Graham drove 40 minutes northwest to Lewiston, where nearly 22 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty. Over the past decade, the former mill town has become home to some 4,000 Somali refugees, and a local high school coach had told Graham about Somali boys who appeared to have the skills to make the team. Help from a neighborhood nonprofit, Trinity Jubilee Center, had opened doors. Seven Somali families were on board. Still, a few parents wanted to see Graham face to face.
With interpreter Jama Mohamed, Graham climbed the steps of the four-story apartment buildings. He was welcomed by family members into two- and three-room apartments. Furnishings were simple. “You could say they have nothing, by the standards of most Americans,” Graham said. “But compared to what life was like in the refugee camps, they have quite a lot: a safe place to live, access to healthy food, the opportunity to educate their children.”
Soccer, Graham was told, was how these boys whiled away the hours in the refugee camps of northeast Kenya, where many spent years after fleeing strife in Somalia. “This wasn’t just a hobby or a pastime,” he said. “It was very central to a lot of their lives.”
But playing at the club level of soccer in America doesn’t come cheap. Players pay about $1,200 per year to train indoors through the winter and play games in the spring. Graham’s team plays in the New England Premiership, a league watched by college coaches. Tournaments are hours away from Maine, and the teams stay in hotels. The Somali boys could play at an elite level, Graham was told. But no way could they pay for it.
Graham, who started and ran an electronics firm in Massachusetts before moving to Maine with his wife, Anne, in 1994 to raise their three boys, was undeterred. “If you have a good idea and a plan, you can make it work,” he said. “You just need to convince people it’s worth doing.”
Somali boys playing club soccer was an easy sell to Kim Wettlaufer, director of Trinity Jubilee, which, among other services, helps Mohamed coordinate a summer soccer program for Somalis of all ages. “Soccer connects them to their homeland, their culture,” Wettlaufer said. “And we find the vast majority of the kids playing soccer and other sports are staying out of trouble.”
As the season began, logistics caused headaches, but they were manageable. Graham, Wettlaufer, and Mohamed coordinated carpools. Seacoast United in New Hampshire, the Maine club’s parent organization, waived players’ fees. Fundraising, sponsors, and friends within the club helped cover costs.
One cold, rainy Sunday, a team from the affluent suburbs west of Boston arrived at North Yarmouth Academy for its NEP game. The Seacoast team included white players from around the state and a Portland contingent that included a Somali, an African-American, an assistant coach and his son of Brazilian descent, and two other Latino players.
Then the nine Somali players arrived from Lewiston. They approached Graham for a hug, a fist bump, a firm handshake. From there it was onto the field for greeting and teasing teammates. “It doesn’t matter where we’re coming from,” said Jesse Arford, a midfielder from Brunswick. “We’re here to play soccer. We’re more united than any team I’ve ever been on.”
The team’s style is a blend as well. They defend with low-risk play; at midfield they mix it up—short passes and dribbling one possession, long passes the next. And in the attacking third? That’s where the Lewiston players show skills honed through a lifetime of free play. “Anything goes,” Graham said.
It’s a potent formula. On that rainy Sunday Seacoast won, 2-1. Overall the team collected 12 wins, two ties, and three losses and went 5-1-1 to place third in the NEP. At a Memorial Day tournament in Needham, Mass., the Mainers emerged as champions from a field of 48 teams. “Coach Ron,” Ibrahim Hussein said, “does a good job of telling us where we need to be. And he always has the greatest speeches, ever.”
Said another Somali player, Mahamed Sheikh, “It was my first time being on a team and actually winning a trophy. It was … great.”
The club remains committed to keeping Graham’s team together next season. Still, hurdles remain. Funding must be found for cleats, shin guards, and physicals, and rides will have to be coordinated again. As the club mulls solutions, Graham keeps his eye on the big picture.
“Maybe I can help these guys become young men that find success in a difficult situation,” he said. “All of these guys are important to their families, but you can see some of them are going to be important outside of their communities. And it feels good to know that.”