Landon Donovan leads soccer camp for refugee kids – The San Diego Union-Tribune

As Hilda Nissan kicked a soccer ball around with about a dozen girls her age, a look of delight came over her each time the ball shot gracefully out from under her foot, gliding along the plush grass at John F. Kennedy Park in El Cajon.

“My favorite part is being with my teammates and having fun. I don’t really care about winning,” said the 11-year-old captain of her team, all outfitted in matching T-shirts and cleats.

Hilda and her family are Iraqi refugees who came to the United States about eight years ago. She plays soccer any chance she gets.

Nissan and about 75 other kids ages 8-14 participated in a soccer clinic for refugee youth hosted by HELM Elite Soccer in partnership with YALLA San Diego. Thursday’s one-day camp was aimed at giving immigrant youth some training — and inspiration — from professionals.

The camp was led by soccer stars Landon Donovan, Brian Ching and Stuart Holden, who recently founded HELM, an acronym for humility, education, leadership and motivation. The group, which also hosted a camp in Austin this summer, plans other soccer clinics around the country.

Donovan is the all-time leader in goals and assists for both Major League Soccer and the U.S. National Team. His teams have won a record six MLS Cups, and he has represented the United States in three FIFA World Cups.

Ching played in Major League Soccer for 12 years, while Holden recently played in the English Premier League as a member of the Bolton Wanderers.

“Left foot, left foot, nice and slow,” said Holden, as he coached a group of boys.

“You’ve gotta get that ball, you’ve gotta get it!” he yelled as they navigated the course, some of them struggling to control the ball.

YALLA — which stands for Youth and Leaders Living Actively and means “let’s go” or “come on” in Arabic — uses soccer as a way to inspire refugee and immigrant children to rebuild their lives in the U.S. and to excel academically, with the goal of leading them to college.

With college preparatory programs, technology, leadership training and a love for soccer, the organization looks to expand the horizons of children who have experienced strife at a young age. Though the El Cajon-based group largely helps Chaldean youth, it also welcomes immigrant children from countries such as Somalia and Guatemala.

Mark Kabban, executive director of the 5-year-old organization, said the sport gives kids an opportunity to look toward the future, while at the same time allowing them to simply enjoy life in the United States.

“It gives them the thing they haven’t been able to have, which is a normal childhood,” he said. “Many of these kids have been uprooted from poverty and from war.”

Kabban said soccer instills discipline and the desire to succeed within the kids, many of whom have experienced great obstacles at a young age.

“We motivate kids that wouldn’t normally be inclined to participate in a program like this,” he said. “(Soccer is) a motivating factor for them. More than anything it gives them stability.”

It’s an attitude evident among the kids, as they play simply to enjoy one another’s company.

“The thing that I like is playing with friends and just having fun,” said Valantena Alisha, 11.

Valantena emigrated from Iraq with her family about four years ago. She’s found comfort in the organization and more than anything, in soccer.

“It really means a lot to us. We want to play competitively with each other and play just like the famous soccer players,” she said. • (619) 293-1380


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