HEADINGLEY — A group of inner-city newcomer girls proved victory can mean simply getting into the game.
After many years of losing a lot of games, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) girls soccer team made it to the city soccer championships for the first time Saturday.
"It’s truly a global team. Where a lot of these girls come from, soccer is not a common game for girls. They’re from Ukraine, Iraq, Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia," said IRCOM sports co-ordinator Gololcha Boru.
The girls team, the under-17s, didn’t exist five years ago. Their boys team made it to the championships about a year ago.
Eight hundred players from 42 teams played in 21 different matches in the championships at the John Blumberg soccer facility.
The marathon with trophies and medals was the peak of the season for the Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association and a pinnacle for the inner-city team.
"An inner-city team making it to the championships, that’s always a good story," said Carlo Bruneau, the association’s executive director.
"The human spirit is an amazing thing," he said. "They’re a talented group."
This year the girls cup, called the Cambrian Challenge Cup, was won by Oxford Heights, and the hoots of victory carried across the field as the girls hoisted their trophy for one iPhone glory moment after another.
"I cried half the car ride here," said Sarah Schwendemann, the IRCOM coach who started the girls team.
"It’s amazing. Surreal, really. I had these girls for four years, and we started with not much for a program."
Boru found himself coaching the girls from the sidelines Saturday as the girls competed against the Corydon Comets under-17 team.
The IRCOM team lost 4-0. The team’s striker, 16-year-old Salem Kidane, whose family immigrated from Eritrea, was speechless with disappointment.
She buried her head in a cap and let the tears fall. Her teammates consoled her, hugged her and told a reporter making it this far was an achievement.
"Salem has an appetite to win. Always. She’s a tireless runner. She motivates the team," Boru said, ticking off the challenges the girls faced to come together.
"These girls leave home in the morning for school, and they come to us after school, and they don’t get home until 10 p.m. They’re from all over the city. It’s a long day and a big commitment," Boru said.
For each, English is a second language. Many are from cultures where women have few of the cultural or civic freedoms Canadian girls take for granted.
At 14, Hazo Abdulkareem is the youngest member. "It’s unbelievable for someone that young to be playing (at this level)," Boru said.
For her part, Hazo looked at the achievement Saturday as "good and bad." They lost the game but made it to the championships, an achievement she can take pride in.
Hazo is from an Yazidi Iraqi family and takes pride in being an athlete. She said she’s grateful to be a girl growing up in Canada.
Playing on a soccer field in Winnipeg is a long way from where her people, a persecuted ethnically Kurdish religious community, are at this moment battling the Islamic State, the threat of genocide and atrocities in Iraq.
The soccer field is where the 14-year-old says she’s making a gesture to stand up for Yazidi women.
"They force them to be Muslims, or they kill them or they sell the women," Hazo said of the people’s persecution in Iraq. "I just want to show them (the girls and the women) you can be a proud woman."