Andrew So, Co-Founder of South Bronx United

Richard Dinardo

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Soccer, Not Just a Pastime --- but a Path to Citizenship

South Bronx United is mentoring immigrants and helping them gain American citizenship by speaking their universal language: soccer.

A year after arriving in New York City from Italy in 2009, the soft-spoken Reindorf Kyei, 18, was still struggling. He struggled with schoolwork, and he struggled at home. His mother was unemployed and his father was never home, working out of state to support the entire family and to maintain their legal residency status.

When Kyei was 7, his family had moved from their native Ghana to Italy in pursuit of economic opportunity, and then resettled again when his father landed a job in the United States. Torn between the three cultures, and speaking only broken English, Kyei and his family labored to fit into their new home.

Then, in March 2010, on a soccer field in the South Bronx, everything changed for Kyei. At the urging of his mother, he had sought out the youth coach of South Bronx United, a nonprofit soccer club based in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. Kyei started playing competitively with the club, and his teammates nicknamed him “Balo” — after Ghanian-Italian striker Mario Balotelli — a sentiment that carried special weight. Playing with South Bronx United not only provided an outlet for Kyei’s passion for the sport, but it also became the key to his dream: legal residency in the U.S.

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South Bronx United uses soccer as a way to engage with underprivileged kids, while providing them with tutoring, college prep and mentorship. Unlike other youth-mentoring programs that sometimes have a hard time keeping kids from dropping out, South Bronx United has a built-in draw. “They are always going to stay for the soccer,” says Andrew So, executive director of the club, which boasts a 99 percent retention rate.

The club has about 600 participants, who play on seven competitive teams and a recreational league. Staying true to the diversity of its South Bronx environment, the club is mostly made up of kids from immigrant families, and more than half were born outside the U.S. “That’s exactly the reason this program is so powerful. We have the added benefit here in the South Bronx because so many of our kids come from that [sports] culture and have that huge passion for soccer,” says So, a former high school teacher.

After joining the club in 2010, Kyei learned that his father had decided not to stay in the U.S. If he left, his children would be obligated to leave as well. However, Kyei, a sturdy central defender whose grades were improving through participation in the club’s tutoring and summer-school programs, had his heart set on something higher — a college scholarship. But that would require proper paperwork.

Through South Bronx United, pro bono attorneys helped him declare special immigrant juvenile status, which allows children to obtain green cards without mandatory parental approval. “At the beginning they tried to work with my dad, but he kept switching his mind about whether he wanted to stay [in America],” Kyei says. “Eventually, I just had to prove in a court that one of my parents, my dad, had abandoned me.”

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By the time his senior year came around, Kyei had a green card. He was also on the radar of a number of local colleges. During a game organized by South Bronx United, he caught the eye of Bloomfield College, a Division II college in New Jersey. After the school reviewed Kyei’s grades, which had drastically improved over the previous two years, it offered him a scholarship.

“We have a lot of immigrant youth who bring enormous challenges [around] language skills and things like that,” So says. “So we have kids who are very talented, but have not done well enough on SATs to qualify for a scholarship yet. That’s another reason educational components are so important for us.”

A higher degree helps down the line as well. Immigrant athletes who are in the U.S. on a visa need to be employable to keep it. A college degree helps with that. Meanwhile, players without the proper documents — many of whom may study in college through programs like Golden Door Scholars — may one day be eligible for amnesty, particularly if Congress passes new legislation similar to the DREAM Act (a bill that proposed giving legal status to illegal immigrants but was defeated in the Senate in 2010), which would grant residency to undocumented immigrants with a higher education.

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Kyei wouldn’t be headed to college without South Bronx United, he says. He is almost certain that he would be back in Italy or Ghana by now were it not for the club’s help. The same is true for other students in the club, such as Innocent, 21, and his 15-year-old brother, Paul, who came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2008. (The club asked for the boys’ surname to be withheld in order to safeguard their efforts to gain residency.) They are working with the club in hopes of finally getting their green cards.

“We didn’t ever have Mommy and Daddy around,” says Innocent, whose parents returned to Nigeria in 2008, leaving him and his brother in the care of an uncle in New York. “[South Bronx United is] the reason I’m where I am, and there was no way we were ever going to get our cards without them.”

Innocent is now a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Paul is a winger for the club’s competitive travel team, and also aspires to receive a college scholarship one day.

“I don’t know where he would be without this,” Innocent says of his brother. “Nowhere, really. And the one thing he truly loves to do is play soccer.”

MORE: Paperwork Stood Between Immigrants and Their Dream, So This Group Stepped In

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South Bronx United uses soccer to engage immigrant youth and provide them with mentorship and academic support. The organization depends on donations to run the programs that help kids succeed on the field and in the classroom — and change their lives.

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Chris Meyer is a student at Columbia University and an editor for the Columbia Daily Spectator. He was an intern at NationSwell during the summer of 2013.