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Sports and Immigrant Integration
"Let's Play Together"
Commentary by Westy Egmont

The 2016 US Olympic Team included 50 remarkable athletes that are Americans by choice. Having immigrated to the US, they made up about 10 percent of the team and had immigrated from China, Albania, Cuba, Montenegro, Kenya and elsewhere.

Tervel Dlagnev wanted to cry and withdraw from school in the second grade because his teacher asked him in front of the class "Are you dumb?"  Born in Bulgaria, intelligence was not the issue, only language. His place on the US Olympic wrestling team followed a national collegiate championship and a medal in the World Championship. For Dlagnev, sports expressed and fulfilled his dreams of integration.  

Olympic tradition involves opening the games with the teams parading in alongside their fellow nationals. However, the games always close with cross-national athletes mingling as friends. The reality is that this social transformation is possible in any community and sport is one of the most successful and accessible vehicles for inclusion and acceptance.  Normative barriers include a cultural unfamiliarity with organized 'play'; family expectations on teens working after school as part of family economic survival; failure to understand the announcement of sign ups and cultural norms around inclusion in team activity. While such factors deter many from acquiring peer relationships on the court or field, sports can serve as an accelerant in acquiring new relationships and acceptance.

While right wing and left wing battle over the White House, fans honor David Ortiz of the Dominican Republic who plays on a Red Sox roster with teammates from Cuba, Japan(2), Venezuela(2), DR, Aruba and Puerto Rico.  Acknowledgement of heroes from diverse backgrounds opens us to claim our Red Sox Nationhood and fosters a view of America as richer through diversity.

Sports are a seminal intervention, reducing fear, fostering familiarity, and encouraging bonding in a global language. Sports can act as a primary catalyst in creating social cohesion. Agency stories (see Agency section and News) point to successful asset based models of combining physical activity, social experience, and academics to break through cultural divides while simultaneously affirming strengths and enhancing confidence in both the self and in the community.

Soccer gives rise to civic appreciation of new populations in places such as Lewiston, ME, and provides a way of community organizing as we see in Queens. Lowell, MA held its own annual World Cup for 20 teams representing many ethnicity and  in Tucson, AZ 5000 soccer players are brought together annually in a Southwest melding of cultures. Adults and youth alike expand their identities beyond their national origin, sharing in community life and acquiring a sense of equality and acceptance. They are able to integrate with their community in ways that their ESL classroom or even their zip code might have excluded them from enjoying.

More research is still needed on social integration of newcomers who participate in after-school programs, adult leagues, Y programs, parks and recreation departments and sports clubs. Given that marginalized youth are at-risk for gang involvement, terrorist recruitment and low academic achievement, evidence based research would help the field understand triggers that impact both engagement and outcomes of various activities with different populations. 

At the US Open Tennis Tournament one wall honors 100 years of The American Tennis Association which, like the Negro Baseball League, exemplifies the anti-integration bias of the last century. The diversity of the US, where 27% of US residents under 17 are Latinos, 43 million residents are foreign-born, and urban communities like LA are a mosaic of diversity, stimulates proactive social engagement that is inclusive. The future unity of the nation may come down to whether we can learn to play together. 

Image Source: Brookings Institute (2016)

Westy Egmont, Director
BCSSW, Immigrant Integration Lab

The Newcomers Academy Program is an after-school program that partners with the YMCA in Louisville. The program works with male and female middle and high school aged students who have recently arrived to the United States as immigrants or refugees. Most of the students are in their first year of instruction in the U.S., many coming from countries as diverse as Syria, Congo, and Cuba. The model pairs structured one-on-one and small-group tutoring with after-school  sports for around 150 students. The sports primarily focus on soccer, although the YMCA Girls International Club also engages with dance, volleyball and basketball, and other activities include kickball, baseball, and handball. John Lincoln, the Regional Childcare Director, describes the strength of such a program, "When you see all these cultures coming together and they say 'Hey, that kid's just like me,' it really starts to speak to developing a sense of peace and to be able to work with each other." The President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Louisville, Steve Tarver, describes this model as "building a pathway to equitable access, to learning, to fulfillment, and ultimately to reaching their greatest potential." The program encourages the students to develop and follow-through on long- and short-term goals through the help of volunteers and ESL instructors for 60-90 minutes after school. Students like Isaac and Bamba, two captains on the high school soccer team, described increased confidence, better grades and making new international friends as some of the many benefits of participating in the sports programming offered by the Newcomers Academy.

Several agencies in Massachusetts focus on supportive, sports-based programming for children, many of whom are immigrants and refugees. For instance, Doc Wayne Youth Services offers a co-ed therapeutic sports-based program for children ages 5-18. The organization collaborates with a variety of settings, such as group homes and schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The program targets relationships, personal development, and engagement in therapy and school. The curriculum integrates DBT, ARC and PCIT into the program with thematic slogans and play. Another agency, Play Ball!, partners with Boston Public Schools and is currently active in 22 schools throughout the city. Play Ball! focuses on baseball, teamwork, determination, and good sportsmanship. The foundation offers a nurturing approach that emphasizes connection, relationships, and encourages academic success. Such programs integrate immigrants and refugees into more mainstream programming, with a special attunement to social-emotional well-being and building upon strengths. 


Kim, J., Kim, M., Henderson, K.A., Han, A., & Park, S.H. (2016)
International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 11(1), pp.1-9
Participation in sports clubs help Korean immigrants cope with acculturative stress and facilitate ethnic solidarity which also contributing to personal benefits such as an increase in self-confidence and healthy living styles. The study highlights that sports clubs for Korean immigrants create a sense of belonging and retention of their cultural identity and membership which improve their social and mental health. Furthermore, these spaces provide an escape from their work and stress of assimilating, as well as an escape from substance abuse for some Korean-Americans as well. The growth of Korean sports clubs in the U.S. has established Korean-American national and state sports festivals and other sports club competitions where Korean immigrants are able to compete with other ethnic-based sports groups. These events provide an opportunity for Koreans to develop ethnic solidarity and networking. This study demonstrates the advantages of sports clubs as a medium for reducing acculturative stress for Korean immigrants and developing healthy behaviors. 
Wieland, M.L., Tiedje K., Meiers, S.J., Mohamed, A.A., Formea, C.M., Ridgeway J.L., Asiedu, G.B., Boyum, G., Weis, J.A., Nigon, J.A., Patten, C.A., & Sia, I.G. (2015)
Journal of Immigrant & Minority Health, 17(1), pp.263-275
Heterogeneous immigrant and refugee groups (Cambodian, Mexican, Somali, Sudanese) have shared perceptions and experiences regarding physical activity. These groups recognize the importance of physical activity. However, physical activity is broadly conceptualized. For instance, house chores, recreational activities such as walking the dog, and physical labor at work are considered physical activities for adults. Among adolescent immigrants and refugees, physical activities include sports and working out at a gym. While many are motivated by the idea of "togetherness," support from their family members and community, and witnessing their own progress and the physical success of others, immigrant and refugee communities still face barriers. Notably gender roles deter women from participating in physical activities due to household responsibilities and religion-based attire. Moreover, lack of access to gyms as well as high costs associated with gym membership and recreational spaces are cited as barriers to participation in physical activity.  
Soccer spectatorship and identity discourses among latino immigrants
Stodolska, M. & Tainsky, S. (2015)
Leisure Sciences, 37(1), pp. 142-159
Soccer spectatorship shapes cultural identities and fosters community and panethnic relationships among Latino immigrants. This study interviewed immigrant soccer fans from Honduras, Mexico, and Argentina. Findings show that soccer spectatorship engenders nationalism and ethnic pride which help immigrants to feel "at home." In addition, by gathering to watch games, cultural bonds are cultivated among different Latino communities. Beyond national borders, their allegiance towards their soccer teams assists in maintaining transnational ties to their countries of origin. Through soccer spectatorship, Latino immigrants are able to forge spaces and communities where they feel a sense of belonging and challenge the power of the nation state through the creation and retention of their cultural identity.
Walseth, K. (2011)
International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 41(3-4), pp. 447-464 Though many persons interested in fostering immigrant integration share a common belief that sports facilitate feelings of belonging to a community, the author argues that more research is needed to explore the varying definitions of "belonging." Focusing on the connection between sports and integration, this study explores the lives of 21 Norwegian Muslim immigrant women between the ages of 16 and 25 years who are actively engaged in sport.  Defying the idea of a singular definition of 'belonging,' the author argues that there are, instead, many forms of belonging that are produced when immigrant youth participate in sport. Drawing distinctions between traditional sport communities and expressivity-based sport communities, the author considers how traditional sport community may act in producing social supports, whereas expressivity based sport communities may contribute more to 'identify confirmation and self-image building.' Furthermore, the author suggests that Muslim immigrant women may sports communities as a 'place of refuge' where they can experience belonging.

African football migrants: Diaspora and identity.  
By Ivaska, J. 
LAP Lambert Academic Publishing (2009)
"African Football Migrants: Diaspora and Identity examines the process of migration of African footballers to the United States and the issues of diaspora and identity involved in this complex process. Using case studies in a specific historical context the author presents varied experiences of professional and amateur footballers attempting to find the American Dream through football. Through these experiences the footballers involve themselves in questions of diaspora and identity." - Publisher's Website

Globalised football: Nations and migration, the city and the dream
By Tiesler, N. & Coelho, J.
Routledge (2014)
"When studying the social phenomena in and around football, five major aspects of globalisation processes become evident: international migration, the global flow of capital, the syncretistic nature of tradition and modernity in contemporary culture, new experiences of time and space and the revolution in information technologies. In an exploration of these themes the collection provides insight into academic studies of football in Portugal, Germany, England, Spain, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the USA. At examining football-related phenomena under the headings of nations and migration, myths and business, the city and the dream, it shows how modernised football itself is object and subject in processes of both neo-liberal globalisation and counter-hegemonic globalisation." - Publisher's Website

Sporting nationalisms: Identity, ethnicity, immigration and assimilation
By Cronin, M. & Mayall, D.
Routledge (1998)
Though an older text, the content of this volume is still relevant and, "examines the ways in which sport shapes the experiences of various immigrant and minority groups and, in particular, looks at the relationship between sport, ethnic identity and ethnic relations. The articles in this volume are concerned primarily with British, American and Australian sporting traditions and the themes covered include the consolidation of ethnic identity in host societies through participation immigrant sports and exclusive sporting organizations, assimilation into host' societies through participation in indigenous, national sports, and the construction by outsiders of separate ethnic identities according to sporting criteria." - Publisher's Website

A report on the "Newly Arrived Migrants and their Integration Through Sport" Conference explains the main themes that were uncovered at the conference and various projects presented from different European countries.

Resources for those interested in engaging youth in play, physical activity, and sport.
Follow Professor Egmont on Twitter @wegmont
EDITORS: E. Camacho, W. Egmont, A. Shapiro, E. Siskind, M. Tepper, D. Maglalang & J. Verkamp