Oakland International High School

Soccer coach Ben Gucciardi, center, with his team at the end of practice. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

At a recent soccer practice at Oakland International High School, the boys welcomed Paulos Gurmu, a newcomer from Ethiopia. After hours of running on asphalt under a blazing sun, they sat in a circle to dole out "positivity points."

A Burmese teen who'd immigrated from a Thai refugee camp gave a point to Paulos, for "playing a lot on his first day, passing a lot."

At a girls' game the next day, Fernanda Barrera, a 10th-grader from Guatemala, screamed her coaching advice to fellow players from the sidelines. "Relax, blue, and pass the ball," she yelled in stilted English, referring to her team by its shirt color.

English is a new language at this public school for recently arrived immigrants from nearly three dozen countries. A third are refugees, many of whom have witnessed atrocities in their home countries. A fourth had received little or no formal education before landing here.

It's a Tower of Babel where unity comes in part through Soccer Without Borders, a program that got its start at this 7-year-old campus and has since spread globally. Founder Ben Gucciardi crafted it precisely to help youths bond across cultural chasms and blossom as leaders in and out of the classroom.

Through soccer, Barrera said, we "make communication with people who are different from us."

Now the soccer program is uniting students in unexpected ways.

Tired of practicing on broken asphalt or, when lucky, on grass at a nearby school or city park, players have joined forces with the student leadership club to press for a field of their own.

The issue is sticky for the Oakland Unified School District, which made an admitted blunder years ago when it allowed a parent group to take the field next to the fledgling school and transform it into a baseball diamond — for students from a high school a quarter-mile away.

The campaign is teaching democracy in action — with all the blemishes of clashing views and compromise — to many youths accustomed to authoritarian regimes

Bolor Erdenebat, a 17-year-old junior who arrived from Mongolia in early 2013, said that back home, she didn't know the meaning of "human rights."

As a member of the leadership club, she launched an online petition that has gathered more than 2,400 signatures.

Her goal? "I want to give the immigrant students the same rights as U.S. citizens."


Part of a national network of international public schools, Oakland International emphasizes collaborative learning, development of confidence through public speaking and a respect for each student's personal story. Language instruction permeates all endeavors.

The student population morphs with global crises. This year, because of rising gang violence in Central America, 40 or so students arrived as unaccompanied minors, largely from Honduras and El Salvador.

The soccer program was an outgrowth: Founding principal Carmelita Reyes in 2007 was readying the closed school building for her inaugural class of 56 when she noticed a group kicking a ball around on the adjacent field, at the time a patchwork of dirt and dying grass.

It was an International Rescue Committee camp, launched with the help of Gucciardi, a semipro soccer player with a master's in alternative education. Participating boys were refugees, largely of Liberian, Burmese and Turkic descent.

Reyes' eyes lighted up. Her school had no athletic budget and a demographic comparable to the camp's. She pressed Gucciardi to stick around as a volunteer and help with physical education and after-school soccer. By 2008, Soccer Without Borders came together with a boys team. The girls followed.

These days, half of the school's more than 300 students participate at some point during the year, and team members have a 95% graduation rate, Gucciardi said.