Former Winnipeg refugee looking to help newcomers through sport: ‘soccer saved my life’

When Omar Rahimi and his family moved to Canada in 2001, there was a lot to learn.

It was a new country, a new language and a new start.

“When you come here, you don’t know anyone,” Rahimi said.

Rahimi was born and raised inside a refugee camp in Iraq and moved to Winnipeg when he was 18 years old.

“I grew up in a camp. I was born there. We played soccer the whole time we were there,” he said.

So when he moved to Winnipeg, his parents pushed him to continue to play.

“I look at my life, what soccer did for me when I came. I joined a lot of teams. I got to know a lot of people,” he said.

“Soccer, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, what background you are. You can play the game.”

It helped him not only integrate into society, but he said it helped keep him on a positive path.

“I really believe soccer saved my life,” Rahimi said. “A lot of our people went the wrong direction.

“I used to always go to practice. And all these guys, they hang around  —  there’s nothing to do — and they would get into trouble, but I was at practice.”

It’s the reason Rahimi started the Liberty Football Club. Liberty FC is made up of newcomer young men who came from war-torn, refugee backgrounds and who have a passion for the game.

Players come from a diversity of places including Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq (Yazidis), Nepal, South Sudan, DR Congo, Syria, and Thailand.

But between club fees, transportation and equipment costs, the team needs funding to be able to continue. Many of the players are living in poverty or are from low-income families with multiple demands.

“We want to make sure there’s a chance for those youth between 18 and 24 to also have the chance to play,” Noelle Depape said.

Soccer for Peace

Depape is one of the organizers of  Soccer for Peace. The tournament is raising money to help fund Liberty FC, start a new bursary for low-income players through the Manitoba Major Soccer League, raise awareness for refugee issues and help to build bridges between Winnipeg’s diverse communities.

“It’s a real strugglel; there’s a lot of trauma that people are facing. Cultural barriers, language barriers, it can be hard to find employment and get credentials recognized, ” Depape said.

“Even finding housing can be a challenge.”

Soccer for Peace is being organized by several groups including Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, the Manitoba Major Soccer League (MMSL), the University of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Police Service.

“This year alone there’s two or three young people who have been killed, shot, because of gang activity and often its because they didn’t have those opportunities or get the support they needed,” Depape said.

“Rather than choosing to sell drugs or be involved in negative activities, they have a space they can belong where they can make healthy choices and find success.”

The group believes it can mean the difference between life and death for some young adults.

Soccer for Peace will take place on March 29 at the Axworthy Health & RecPlex. They currently have 24 teams registered to play and have room for 12 more teams to join.

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