Different Teams, Common Goals: Camaraderie, Competition Unite Area Ethnic Groups

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Uighurs eased their cars into George Mason University's Lot I, as they do most Sundays. They dropped their bags on the edge of a field and pulled on cleats and blue shirts.

The Kurds arrived soon after. They slapped hands with the Uighurs and exchanged greetings: "Hey," they said, "Salam-u aleikum." A few from both sides knelt on the field to pray. Then it was time to play.

Soccer is the Esperanto of sports. Everyone from everywhere seems to play it; all you need are feet and a ball. In the Washington region, where so many ethnic enclaves share a passion for the sport, soccer fields can sometimes feel like the United Nations: Ethiopians and Ugandans; Bolivians and Kazakhs; Uighurs and Kurds. The teams might not speak the same language, but everyone understands "goal," "pass" and "corner."

Uighur United, a Northern Virginia-based team of men in their teens and 20s, was formed in 2005. Many Uighurs, a Muslim minority in western China, arrived with their families about 10 years ago, often via countries such as Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where they fled to escape pressure from the Chinese government. They play against other Uighurs (pronounced "WEE-ghurs") across the United States and in Canada and this year plan to go to Australia.

"We're using it as a tool to reunite our youth," said Shafkat Ali, 22, a George Mason student who lives in Reston.

"Some of the people who come here at a young age, they sort of forget their own culture," explained Mustafa Sidik, 25, a University of Maryland student who lives in Annandale. "They get kind of Americanized. That's not a bad thing, but we don't want them to forget their culture."

They are also doing something their cousins in western China can't since a violent Chinese crackdown on Uighur protesters this month.

"Most of the time they . . . don't want you to get together," said Sidik, referring to the Chinese government, which he said has barred large gatherings of Uighurs. Soccer counts as a gathering. "I don't think anyone's playing soccer right now."

Kurds in northern Iraq can gather unmolested these days, but they, too, faced repression for years and often came here for similar reasons. In fact, many played soccer with the Uighurs at Fairfax High School, and they now attend local universities together.

For whatever reason, the Uighurs are more organized than the Kurds, who don't have matching shirts or even a team name.

"I wish we could have a team like them, because they go to Canada and different states," said Zirian Shammo, 21, a Kurd from Centreville who studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Sunday afternoon games are not particularly competitive. Still, each team wants to win. "They make fun of us all week if we lose," Shammo said. "The past couple of months, we've been losing, so all the jokes are on us."

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