Playing "the beautiful game" has been an uplifting experience for a group of newcomers to Canada.
Players from Myanmar (formerly Burma) in the U8 age division have been playing soccer every Saturday at Douglas Park Community School, assisted by a number of helping hands from the Langley United Youth Soccer Association (LUYSA).
The local soccer club stepped in last year to get the eight-year-old Karen kids involved in soccer, but there were a few challenges, since the players weren't aware of organized soccer's rules, or field boundaries for that matter.
Scott Moye, LUYSA's director of grassroots (formerly mini) soccer, said the efforts to get the Karen players on the soccer field was "a couple of years" in the making.
"Due to time constraints and logistical complications we weren't able to proceed," Moye said.
When he took over the position of director of grassroots soccer two years ago, Moye felt giving the Karen youngsters a chance to play the sport seemed like a great way to give back to the community.
He said soccer is a strong vehicle for Langley players to learn about a situation, and culture, from another part of the world.
"Along with the help of a number of dedicated volunteers, we brought it all together, collecting used cleats, and provided them with new uniforms and equipment," Moye said.
Moye said the Karen players are no strangers to soccer, having played in the streets of their homeland all day, every day.
However, once they had immigrated to Canada, the opportunity to play in the same "street-grassroots" manner wasn't there.
"So they missed playing the game a lot," he said. "While they lacked the experience playing in such an 'organized' format, the kids are very talented and show a great deal of raw talent and potential. Smiles all around!"
Moye said the Karen players are enthusiastic and full of energy, just like any other group of kids. He reminds parents and coaches that there are cultural differences and allowing the youngsters to play soccer is about giving back.
"It may be a great opportunity to talk to your children about life in another part of the world and how kids, no matter their colour or culture, are just like them," he said. "That's a valuable life lesson."
The community feedback, so far, has been extremely supportive, according to Moye: "I've had many parents, coaches, and LUYSA members tell me how this is such a great experience for all involved."
He added, "one of the neatest things is to see is, in the first five minutes of a game, the Langley kids realize how good the Karen kids are, and by the end of the game that they are just the same as they are. Just kids grinning, laughing, kicking a ball, and occasionally rolling in the mud."
Moye's goal is to have an older group of Karen players integrated into LUYSA's house teams next season.
If logistics like driving and travelling can be arranged, LUYSA is hoping to distribute the younger players onto its regular teams, to continue bringing the players together in the community.
"We also have plans to offer some LUYSA academy opportunities to the kids, as we would love to provide some further high-level skill development," Moye said.
Hteethakway is one of the Karen players and already knows his favourite position to play.
"I like to be goalie," he said.
The nine-year-old Douglas Park Community School student hopes to be a firefighter when he grows up but for now, he's happy to run around the Langley soccer pitch with friends, meet new ones and keep his opponents from scoring by guarding the space between the posts.
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Karen families had survived persecution in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and life as refugees before coming to Canada. The Karens are one of nine minority groups within Myanmar persecuted by the Burmese majority. About 140,000 refugees have lived in camps, some which have existed for 20 years, in the remote jungles.
Canada and other nations have been accepting refugees for a few years. Several families have settled in Langley.