Warshan Hussin didn't speak English and knew only other Iraqis in the area when he moved to Baltimore in 2010. He was depressed and felt that people were always making fun of him behind his back.
But that changed when he discovered Soccer Without Borders, a free international program located in Nicaragua, Uganda and seven locations around the United States that uses soccer to help refugees, asylees and immigrants acclimate to their new community. Now, four years after joining Soccer Without Borders, Hussin is fluent in English and knows he has an opportunity to go to college.
"Soccer Without Borders gave me a reason to wake up again," Hussin said.
When Hussin joined Soccer Without Borders, the program had only one soccer ball and program director Jill Pardini said close to 85 percent of the 14-to-18-year-olds couldn't speak English.
Now Soccer Without Borders is flourishing through word of mouth, and has become an academic and athletic outlet for its participants. Founding director Ben Gucciardi said the Baltimore chapter is one of Soccer Without Borders' strongest programs. Enrollment has quadrupled from 2010 to 2014, and the organization now has 65 participants.
The high schoolers practice three times a week at Northeast Middle School, running drills, scrimmaging and preparing for tournaments.
"It's just amazing that I've been able to make friends from all over the world," Tresor Echa, 19, said with a smile. "It makes me really happy."
Pardini started the year-round Baltimore chapter of Soccer Without Borders in 2009.
She quickly realized the need for the program to expand when Muluberhan Bahre, a participant in Soccer Without Borders, invited her to his home. Bahre spoke minimal English and had just moved to Baltimore from Eritrea, a country on the Eastern Coast of Africa.
Pardini said she thought she was coming over for a casual chat. She soon found out just how vulnerable Bahre and his mother were.
His mother brought over a massive stack of paperwork. She had a slew of questions, which Bahre tried to translate into English. How do I pay this bill? Is my son going to get into trouble because he sees trouble around him? How do I sign up for English courses?
The list went on, and Pardini quickly realized she had the opportunity to turn Soccer Without Borders into a resource for the refugee community.
"I go, 'Wow,'" Pardini said. '"Soccer is the tip of the iceberg for what we could try to do.' That was a light bulb. There's a lot of need here."
So Pardini connected with people around the city who could help beef up Soccer Without Borders in Baltimore. The results soon became tangible, as enrollment grew year by year, from 16 to 32 to 50 to 65 participants.
Bahre graduated from Patterson High School and is now a rising sophomore majoring in biology at St. Mary's College.
"They've done a really tremendous job of becoming such a resource for the refugee community there," Soccer Without Borders executive director Mary McVeigh said of the Baltimore chapter.
Soccer Without Borders caters to middle schoolers and high schoolers, and academic director Teresa Towey said the program has a 100 percent college acceptance rate while helping kids feel comfortable in America.
That welcoming mentality has helped Hussin go from an introverted kid to an outgoing one. He's part of a midfield unit Pardini calls "Need for Speed" and is excited to showcase those skills at the Columbia Invitational tournament this weekend.
When he first met his best friend Glory Aganze, who is from Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2010, he thought Aganze was cocky and intimidating. When they talked at Soccer Without Borders the following day, he observed just how warmhearted Aganze was. Aganze offered Hussin a binder in school when he didn't have one, and they've been inseparable ever since.
"All my friends now are from Soccer Without Borders," Hussin said in perfect English. "It's like a family."
Soccer Without Borders fundraiser
SWB 5th Anniversary Fundraiser Gala: Our World Cup
Thursday, 6 p.m.
Cylburn Arboretum Vollmer Center