El Cajon Nonprofit Helps Refugee Children Through Soccer

San Diego is one of the top counties in California for taking in refugees

To watch Osama Abdulazez play soccer with his friends in El Cajon you wouldn’t guess what they’ve been through.

“Terrorists go after everybody and my dad was threatened,” the 14-year-old tells NBC 7.

He and his family fled their home in Baghdad because of those threats.

Abdulazez plays soccer every week with other refugee children, but his family in Iraq is never far from his mind.

“I remember I was saying bye to all my cousins and all my uncles, that was a really sad moment, because imagine leaving everyone you love and everyone you know behind,” Abdulazez remembers.

Many of the kids are from Iraq, but others come from similarly war-torn countries like Syria and Somalia. The soccer games are organized by the local nonprofit Yalla (Youth and Leaders Living Actively). Yalla organizes the games to help the children succeed and assimilate in their new home.

Many of the children still communicate with their families who live in war zones, and although they know their families are still in danger, programs like Yalla’s help them get away from the stresses of day to day life.

“Our main focus is to move them quickly from survival mode into thriving mode,” says Sarah Cooper, executive director of Yalla. The nonprofit combines soccer with specialized tutoring to teach the kids English and other necessary skills to succeed in school.

“These kids are going on to four year schools,” Cooper says. “They’re going to come out as professionals. They're going to pay a lot of taxes.”

Like the rest of these children of war, Abdulazez hopes to live a long and successful life in his new American home.

“Programs like Yalla help you not just in soccer, in school, in life basically,” Abdulazez says.

A world away from what they know, a familiar sport is helping these children make goals for the next chapter in their lives.

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