Local Spotlight

Local Spotlight: Refugee Team inspires city during 2017 Philadelphia Unity Cup

Photo by Rob Simmons

Last year the city of Philadelphia hosted a soccer tournament unlike any other in the country. A World-Cup style tournament spread out over the course of two months from September to mid-November. The Philadelphia International Unity Cup has returned once more this year with more immigrant communities represented than before. The 2017 co-ed tournament even included an all Refugee Team. The team’s players and the story behind the team’s formation are an inspiration.

2016 – Talks but nothing more

The 2016 Unity Cup was the brainchild of current Mayor Jim Kenney. Kenney began pushing a series of initiatives immediately after winning office – one of which was to create a city-wide soccer tournament. His vision for the tournament was simple yet profound, to unite Philadelphia’s vast immigrant communities together through an international language: soccer.

With Mayor Kenney’s vision laid out, city officials began the necessary leg work to get the idea up and running. The amount of collaboration that goes into the planning of this soccer tournament is rather stunning. Entire city departments turned into impromptu planning committees. The Office of Immigrant Affairs teamed up the Parks & Recreation department to secure fields from regional parks and public sports complexes. The city also secured partnerships and sponsors to handle the fees of the tournament.

Bill Salvatore, Leadership and Organizational Development Manager for the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation department, was tasked with heading the organizational efforts along with the Office of Immigrant Affairs. He and the rest of the city officials found out about the idea from Mayor Kenney only a few days after his inauguration in 2016. After Salvatore was named Unity Cup Director, the real grunt work began.

“When you bring people together around one commonality, it’s the foundation for important cultural exchange and understanding that increases tolerance across the city,” said Mayor Kenney last year in March.

A total of 32 teams competed in last year’s tournament; city officials decided a cap on number of teams was necessary. Philadelphia’s largest immigrant communities were represented, Italian and Irish, as well as some smaller communities like Philly’s Bosnian population. They were hints and mentions of a Refugee team forming but nothing was able to materialize. Logistics proved too difficult to coordinate and the talks of a team coming together broke down. The registration deadline for teams came and went. 2016 was not the year for Philadelphia’s Refugee community to be represented.

Philadelphia – a welcoming city

Mayor Kenney announced the Unity Cup would return in 2017 during a press conference at City Hall in late January. Kenney concluded that “In Philadelphia, we know that our strength is in our diversity and right now it’s more important than ever to show the rest of the country how we live and work together and celebrate our differences.”

Contemporary political rhetoric tends to lack empathy for those who most deserve it. Perhaps those who have faced the most difficulties imaginable over the past two years are those fleeing persecution, refugees. Philadelphia’s leaders recognized the influx in the world’s refugee population following the escalated violence in Syria and neighboring areas that began prior to 2014. Philadelphia along with other cities declared themselves ‘sanctuary cities.’ Cities like Philadelphia throughout the USA began to see an influx of refugees. Lately there has been a dip in those numbers but at its peak, Philadelphia housed nearly 560 refugees.

The Refugee Team that competed in the 2017 Unity Cup consisted of 25 refugees and SIVs (Special Immigrant Visa) – meaning the individual worked with US troops as interpreters or translators in Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars. 23 players and two coaches from nine countries – with no common language other than soccer – would represent those with perhaps the toughest journeys to Philadelphia over the past two years. Those nine countries include Iraq, Syria, Cuba, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Refugee Team’s formation

Photo courtesy of unitycup.phila.gov. The Refugee Team flag. The team motto: “Out of many, one.”

For the Refugee Team to materialize for this year’s Unity Cup, a lot of teamwork and even some charitable efforts were needed. A strong sense of determination was also required from both the players and coaches themselves. Two main groups would prove vital to the Refugee Team’s formation: The Nationalities Service Center (NSC) and a group of lawyers from three separate law firms who decided to pitch in the necessary funds needed to secure equipment among other requirements.

NSC has been around since 1929 and to date is the largest provider of comprehensive services to refugees and immigrants in the Greater Philadelphia area. The Center focuses on refugee resettlement in hopes of securing housing, work, health and legal access, and interpretation and educational opportunities.

Caitlin Gordon, Associate Director of Development at NSC, served as one of many to help the Refugee Team and its formation. Gordon oversees funding for NSC but prior to the Unity Cup kicking off in September, she was able to play a different role. Gordon headed a team effort that included volunteers to help with the logistics and communication needed to get the team’s paperwork in on time.

When learning of the Refugee Team’s addition to this year’s tournament, Gordon was thrilled. “I thought it was phenomenal. The City of Philadelphia now has another series of exciting events and it truly shows that Philly is a welcoming city,” said Gordon.

The Refugee Team’s formation was a bit last minute, causing some hectic last few days prior to the registration deadline. An Amazon wish-list for a team field trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods was set-up which included equipment needs like shin guards. However, one vital piece of equipment was not listed on the wish-list: cleats.

In steps the Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA). Miriam Enriquez, Director, played a key role during the Refugee Team’s genesis. Through ongoing conversations between the team’s Arabic speaking coach and NSC, it became apparent that cleats and public transportation were the team’s biggest hassles. Players were experiencing immense difficulties navigating the sometimes-complicated public transportation system. The players after all work full-time and often had to squeeze practice into already busy days. Eventually, the team’s future and inclusion in the 2017 Unity Cup was in jeopardy since registration date was creeping in.

Coffee meeting

A coffee meeting occurred in late July between Enriquez and Philadelphia lawyer John Vandenberg, from the firm Hogan & Vandenberg. In between sips of coffee the two ended up discussing the Refugee Team and the struggles they were facing moving forward. Vandenberg decided to act. Following the meeting he reached out to NSC and requested that he and some other firms could sponsor the team, allowing them to secure necessary funds and equipment to participate.

Vandenberg was able to learn of the dedication and passion exhibited by the Refugee Team’s coaches. One of the coaches was from Iraq and coached for the Iraqi National Team while the other was from Kenya who had been coaching a refugee team of his own in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. He moved to Philadelphia in early July and began running practices the very next Wednesday in South Philly!

Fast forward a month and talks between NSC and Vandenberg resumed, this time Vandenberg had a plan. Originally Vandenberg planned on gathering up support from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) but he had to shift gears when that plan fell through. Instead he turned to some buddies and formed a three-firm coalition to help. Jonathan Grode of Green & Spiegel and Adam Solow of Solow, Isbell & Palladino were happy to assist the Refugee Team.

Together Vandenberg, Solow, and Grode chipped in over $1200 to help support the team’s needs. During a conference call with the three lawyers, they made it well known that colleagues throughout their firms also helped chip in.

“These guys give us energy. They have overcome tremendous difficulties,” explained Vandenberg.

Vandenberg began practicing International Law in 2002 and has been working in Immigration Law. His two buddies Grode and Solow are also dedicated Immigration lawyers and truly know the difficult and strenuous process that immigrants and refugees must traverse to gain entry to this country. Grode began practicing law in 1999 as a paralegal and his love of travelling eventually helped him spark a career in Immigration law. Solow is the soccer player of the group and he was the one who dropped off the money for the team to participate. Solow experienced what some immigrants and refugees must face throughout their lives when he studied at Villanova. He was able to work with kids from Somalia, Ethiopia, and other east African areas.

“Our job is to help those who go through tougher times. The sponsorship [of the Refugee Team] is way to give back and gives us the ability to really help,” explained Grode during our conference call. “This really was a great opportunity to give back to the community,” Vandenberg concluded.

Refugee Team was all set

Following the coffee meeting, the Refugee Team had acquired enough funds to secure the necessary cleats and public transportation tokens thanks to the generous lawyer folk. Next step was the actual Cup itself.

The 48 teams were divided into 12 groups (A-J) of four teams each. Matches have been played at four different locations throughout the city. Details on teams and group placements can be found here. Refugee Team was placed in Group C along with Thailand, Guatemala, and a formidable foe in team Italy.

Round one, Refugee Team was unlucky having to face Italy as their first opponent. The all-refugee squad, sharing no common language other than “The Beautiful Game” were playing in the Philadelphia International Unity Cup. Unfortunately, they lost that opening round game on September 10th 6-2.

September 17th was the next gameday for Refugee Team. They squared off against Guatemala that Friday evening. They once again fought hard and valiantly but ultimately fell short, in a 4-1 loss. Two weeks down without a loss but the team’s spirit remained upbeat, after all they were participating with all the other immigrant communities.

Heading into the third and final round prior to the knockout stages, Refugee Team was 0-2 and facing elimination. Thailand was the next opponent. On the afternoon of September 22nd, Refugee Team lost once more 3-2 and would be eliminated from the Unity Cup. A long journey brought them to the tournament, but they could not secure a result.

Presence > Wins

Despite not coming away with a win, Refugee Team’s participation in the 2017 Unity Cup speaks volumes. Philadelphia is a very culturally diverse city. If that is not apparent following this two-month long soccer festival, you have not been paying close enough attention. Did you know there was a Bhutanese community in Philadelphia? I sure didn’t. And neither did Unity Cup director Bill Salvatore.

“I was actually invited to a Bhutanese naming ceremony because of the Unity Cup,” said Salvatore. “I didn’t even know where on the map it is.”

Miriam Enriquez from the Office of Immigrant Affairs was blown away when she heard of the Refugee Team’s participation and the charitable efforts that were put forth to make it happen. “I love it. The 2016 Summer Olympics set the stage. Why not us? At the national level, there is such negative rhetoric, it’s nice to see the immigrant and refugee communities together. Good to show them that the city is home for them, and welcomes them.”

Philadelphia truly is a melting pot of cultures continuously growing and expanding to welcome all peoples. The Philadelphia International Unity Cup is a unique and clear example of the diversity the city possesses.


  1. Thanks, Matt. A lot.

  2. Great story, Matt! Saw them play against Thailand and was impressed that they were somewhat of a team.
    Hope that many of them will come on Saturday to be part of the ceremony at the Linc. Heard that they are expecting circa 500 players of all the 48 teams to walk into the stadium, as they do in the Olympics!

  3. Great stuff, thanks for the nice write up

  4. Truly wonderful story. Thanks Matt.

  5. This looks like a fantastic event.
    I’m hoping to make it down to the Linc saturday for the championship games.
    It’s FREE!!

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