A Soccer non-profit has brought at-risk members of East Charlotte’s immigrant and refugee communities together—and the Black Lives Matter movement has provided many with hope and inspiration.

CHARLOTTE—Since its inception in 2004, Street Soccer 658 has used the world’s most popular sport to engage with Charlotte’s at-risk youth and adults, including immigrants and refugees.

Most of the program’s participants come from minority populations, who have switched from training and games to regular community-wide Zoom chats during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when protests against police brutality and racism have transformed Charlotte and beyond, those Zoom chats have changed in focus.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions with our players, including one-on-one meetings to get their thoughts,” says Program Director Peter Fink. “A number of our players have been participating in the protests, and we’ve been processing the movement with them during our discussions. We’ve been encouraging them to share stories of how they’ve been treated in the past, and to speak to the injustices they have felt.”

The non-profit program, based in East Charlotte, works with members of the community who range in age from 5 to 25 years old. Lately, many of the older players have been opening up about their experiences with social injustice and racism.

“The protest movement has definitely impacted a larger proportion of our players from East Africa,” says Fink. “We have listened to players talk about their past experiences, where they have been made to feel unwelcome or told to ‘go back to Africa.’”

“Our discussions really help our players process their experiences, and it helps our coaches by giving them more perspective on what the players are dealing with,” adds Fink.

Players in the program hail from 22 countries and all walks of life, but are united by the bond that soccer provides.

“When you walk through the door into one of our sessions, you immediately know that we’re all here to support each other. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from,” says Fink.

“Our players know we are all in this community together. They know there are a lot of people who feel just like them, and they know they don’t have to feel isolated. They have a community they can rely on.”

The Black Lives Matter movement’s ability to bring positive change is evident among many of the program’s members, who have found its influence to be profound.

“The protests have been inspiring for our players,” says Fink. “I don’t think they realized how big the movement was until they got out and marched.

“It’s been a really impressive response from the community. It’s a shame it has taken this long to happen, but our players are telling us they now feel hope in the future.”