Oakland International High School currently lacks a soccer field. Without access to a regular practice space, students who participate in the popular Soccer Without Borders program have been playing soccer on an unsafe stretch of asphalt behind the school. In response, students are petitioning the Oakland Unified School District to create a multipurpose field space that will service the needs of OIHS students and provide a safe recreational facility for youth in the broader East Bay community.
A multicultural haven, Oakland International High School educates students from 33 different countries, including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Guatemala, Iraq, Somalia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Many of the students have escaped ethnic conflicts, wars, and persecution. While students at Oakland International High School come from vastly different cultural backgrounds and speak different languages, they are able to bond through the universal language of soccer.
Through Soccer Without Borders, a nonprofit program that uses “soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the lives of marginalized youth,” students are given the opportunity to participate in a healthy forum for building friendships and adjusting to their new environment.
Bolor Erdenebat, 17, a junior at Oakland International High School, immigrated to the United States from Mongolia last year with her older sister, leaving her parents behind. Erdenebat and a group of OIHS students and faculty created the petition on Change.org to improve the tightly knit student community. “We all speak in different languages,” Erdenebat said. “And some people don’t know English at all and they can’t communicate with people from other countries. But they will build friendships with other people by playing soccer.”
Soccer is interwoven into the fabric of student life at Oakland International High School. Of the approximately 350 students who attend the school, which is located in Temescal, 195 students have participated in Soccer Without Borders in the past; of those 195 students, 105 are regular participants.
Ben Gucciardi, the founder of Soccer Without Borders who coaches a boys’ soccer team at OIHS, has witnessed the transformational effect that soccer has on the lives of students. “They become part of a group of people that is really thinking about them, caring about them, and trying to encourage them,” Gucciardi said. “That makes a huge difference in terms of adjusting to their new lives here and moving past some of the hardships which they have faced in their home countries.”
The student-driven campaign to create a soccer field at Oakland International High School underscores the need for underserved immigrant youth in Oakland to receive equitable amounts of educational resources. “This is a population that historically has very low graduation rates and is typically quite hard to engage, so programs that are effective and reaching large numbers of youth really need to be supported,” Gucciardi said.
The petition, which currently has 2,111 signatures, calls for creating a soccer field at Oakland International High School, converting the existing baseball facility at the adjacent Oakland Technical High School into a baseball-softball facility, and adding a retractable outfield fence between the two fields that could be removed to create a full-size soccer field. When not in use by Oakland Unified School District sports teams, the multipurpose field space (dubbed “Temescal Fields”) would be open to the community.
Erdenebat is optimistic that the petition will be successful. “The petition is growing a lot. People are signing a lot. I am really excited,” she said, her voice brimming with happiness.