The world’s most famous futbol fan will meet a group of young futbol players when he visits Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem next Friday.
There may not be a Messi, a Ronaldo or a Neymar among them—not yet—but they already form perhaps the city’s most distinctive soccer side.
They are part of a club almost entirely composed of young undocumented teenagers from Central America who over the last couple of years rode atop freight trains, walked uncounted miles in tropical heat and swam across hazardous rivers to get here. At the height of the influx of unaccompanied minors in spring 2014 some 7,700 were apprehended at the southwest border in April and more than 10,000 were rounded up in May and June. Most of them had arrived from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“When I came here, I left my country with no money so I had to walk a lot,” recalled Elvis Garcia Callejas who actually made the trip 10 years ago as a 15-year-old from his native Honduras. Today with a degree in international development and Spanish with a minor in sociology from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., he is a case manager with Catholic Charities Community Services helping the most recent young arrivals fleeing endemic violence and grinding poverty in their homelands. He treats them like little brothers, which in a way they are.
“I crossed Mexico from the south all the way to the U.S. on top of a train,” he noted. “It is very dangerous. A lot of people lose their lives trying to come to the U.S. on the train.”
Garcia Callejas came up with the idea to form the soccer club as a way to mitigate the stress these latest teen arrivals, now mostly living with relatives or sponsors, are under navigating the knotty U.S. immigration system.
“I see a lot of kids in immigration court. They are very, very worried,” Garcia Callejas explained. “They don’t know what’s going to happen and they have to worry about stuff that kids shouldn’t have to be worrying about. And then you see them at the soccer field and they become children again. They have fun. They joke with each other. They’re playing like kids and it’s fun to see that part of them.”
Looking for a place his kids could play, Garcia Callejas contacted South Bronx United, a nonprofit youth development organization that uses soccer as a vehicle for social change, helping to build character, teamwork and leadership skills. South Bronx United serves some 600 boys and girls, ages 4 to 19, and their families in the South Bronx. Garcia Callejas was soon sending his kids there to play soccer and helping to coach.
“Then one day a person from South Bronx United called and asked me, you know you’re sending a lot of kids here,” Garcia Callejas recalled. “Why don’t you create a group for them, and we’ll help you and we can run this together with Catholic Charities. I said, ‘Sure, why not.’”
The group, now 40 strong, almost all undocumented children, plays pickup games every Saturday in Mullaly Park near Yankee Stadium.
Cristian Contreras, 16, comes from the same city in Honduras, San Pedro Sula, as Garcia Callejas. Contreras fled for the same reason his coach did, the outrageous level of violence. In 2013 the city in northwest Honduras was ranked the most murderous city in the world with a rate of 169 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, an average of more than three people every day.
“Yes, it was very serious,” the boy said of the violence in his hometown. He left two sisters and three brothers behind to make the arduous, roughly 15-day journey north in December 2013. He lists Messi as his favorite soccer player and Barcelona as his favorite club.
“Since I was little I’ve played soccer,” he told CNY. “I grew up enjoying playing soccer. All the people we play with are undocumented. We’ve become friends.”
Norlan Giron, 16, is also from Honduras. His favorite player is Ronaldo and his favorite team is Real Madrid. He swam the Rio Grande and was apprehended in Harlingen, Texas. He told CNY the swim across the polluted Rio Grande was the scariest part of the journey north for him because he didn’t know how deep it was. But he said the thing he remembered most vividly of the journey was the constant “hunger.” He said he now feels “supported” among his new friends in New York and declared he is “very excited” about the possibility of meeting the Holy Father. The team will present Pope Francis with a gift, possibly a soccer jersey.
Lazaro Us Baquiax, 17, made the journey, sometimes by train, sometimes on foot, from his native Guatemala a year and eight months ago. “It was very difficult, walking, crossing rivers riding on top of the train,” the slight youth recalled. He said violence was only part of the reason he fled.
“I wanted to become something in life,” he explained. As to his opportunity to meet Pope Francis, he said, “I am very happy.” His favorite player is Neymar and he roots for Barcelona.
Garcia Callejas, now a United States citizen, and happily married for a year, sees a lot of himself in these teenage boys. Perhaps they see their future in him, too.
“Coming from another country, learning a new language, going through the immigration system can be a lot for a kid. And it was a lot for me,” he acknowledged. “And just having soccer, playing soccer helped me to forget all my issues, why I left my country, why am I here without my family.” He said it was a Catholic family in Chicago that changed his life. “I met an American family, they live in Chicago and they are Catholic. They helped me with my Catholic faith. They helped me get enrolled in school and they helped me going through all of this process. I was this kid that came here without anything, without any knowledge of this country, without education, and thanks to this family I now work for Catholic Charities and may have the chance to meet the Pope.”