From his war-torn homeland of Vietnam to the refugee camps in Thailand, Nho Cai has dealt with some of life's harshness by playing soccer.
One year after reaching the United States, he still escapes through soccer. The sport that once eased his fears and made life bearable now serves as an important tool of adjustment for Cai and other area teen-age refugees.
Connections, an agency of the Catholic Charities of Richmond, has found that soccer is one of the few positive links to the past for many of the 55 minors who came to this country under the sponsorship of the agency, which is their legal guardian. According to officials of the Falls Church organization, the refugees, who have no relatives in this country, made tremendous social gains once they began playing soccer here as they had in their homeland.
"Soccer is a channel for them to communicate with us," said Dennis Hunt, regional director of Connections. "These kids have identity problems. The fact that they are Vietnamese in an American world will not go away. But soccer is something they can take pride in."
Jill Wintersteen, a social worker at Connections, said: "Soccer was the one true common denominator we found among all the kids. We tried picnics, we tried support groups, outings, counseling, everything . . . only soccer unified them."
Hunt believes the sport boosts the self-image of the refugees because it gives them something at which to excel. Compared with Americans, most are too small to compete in other sports and need to improve their English before they can do well in school.
Cai is the captain of Phu Dong, the team begun last summer by Connections as a recreational outlet first, a cathartic activity second. Named after a boy adventurer in a popular Vietnamese myth who ascended to Heaven after single-handedly routing the enemy, the team, which will begin its first full season of organized competition in May, has given the players pride in a world they never may see again.
"These kids don't know who they are," said Mai Duc, coach and founder of the team and himself from South Vietnam. "They are frustrated. But they are proud of Phu Dong. They all call me, wanting to play . . . I can't satisfy them."
Approximately 6,000 refugees, most of whom are Vietnamese, have arrived in the U.S. since the establishment of federal programs in 1975 to handle unaccompanied minors. Because officials seldom have proof that parents have surrendered their rights to their children, these minors aren't eligible for adoption. Instead they are kept in Southeast Asian refugee camps until foster parents can be found.
These unaccompanied minors have traveled rough roads, ones that have in some instances blocked the life that a soccer ball can draw out. Many have witnessed violence and death. Many have suffered abuse in escaping their native countries. Suicides occur often in refugee camps.
Cai's flight from Vietnam is not atypical. He said the boat upon which he escaped Vietnam in 1982 was hit by storms and attacked twice by pirates during its three-day journey to Thailand.
"It was really dangerous, but we were very lucky," said Cai, 18, a junior at Annandale High School. "They only took our rings and watches. They didn't kill anybody."
Like most minors, he had trouble adjusting to his new life and was confused by American society. But Phu Dong was intended to bridge such social and cultural disparities. Counseling sessions are conducted in Vietnamese among the entire team after each game and the players are encouraged not only to discuss their problems, but to take pride in their heritage as well.
"After the catharsis and closeness of a game, the kids feel more open," Hunt said. "It makes them more willing to share at an emotional level."
Officials of Connections say the soccer program has substantially aided in the adjustment of some players, most of whom speak little or no English. Before he joined Phu Dong, Lien Ngoc Huynh, 19, of Falls Church seldom talked and was withdrawn. Now, according to Mai Duc, Huynh is "happier and more active. I was surprised when he said he'd play."
The team also is credited with reaching a boy whom his coach described as a "troublemaker" upon arrival. "But he has made a complete change," Mai Duc said. "Now he is the one who tries to break up fights rather than start them."
Along with helping the minors adjust to their new lives, Phu Dong has also helped them adjust to each other. Strong racial and social prejudices have carried over from the rigid class system in Vietnam, one in which Amerasians, the children of Vietnamese mothers and American servicemen, are disdained because of their mixed heritage. Amerasians, who have begun to arrive at Connections in greater numbers, are accepted by Phu Dong.
"Their race hasn't been an issue," said Hunt. "They get along quite well. These kids have more in common than in difference."
To some observers, the exploits of Phu Dong may appear small. Equipment is at a premium -- the team has only one ball -- and practices tend to be irregular. Although Phu Dong is scheduled to compete in the Annandale Boys Club league next fall, its only opponent to date has been Co Lau, another team of unaccompanied minors cared for by the Lutheran Social Services of Washington, D.C.
Players are discouraged from becoming dependent on Phu Dong lest they lose initiative when the time comes for them to be on their own.
"Our purpose is not to keep them," said Mai Duc. "We want to prepare them to live in this society and teach them the values that are here."