As the sun set that November evening, the sky was clear of clouds, letting the orange sunset cast a haze over Citizen’s Bank Park, home of 2008 World Series Champions the Philadelphia Phillies. On this particular night, the scent of traditional ballpark fare wafted over a much different scene: a naturalization ceremony. The judge presided over twenty or so men and women of different races, ethnicities, and creeds, but all spoke in unison as they swore to defend the United States’ Constitution and secure the blessings of liberty provided under it. After heartfelt congratulations to all who endured the long immigration process in hopes of taking a stab at the American dream, the outfield was cleared of the podium and chairs to make way for the night’s main event: the championship match of the first annual Philadelphia Unity Cup. The teams took the field, standing tall for their national anthems then quickly making a transition to game mode. The first whistle blew as the sun dipped behind the city’s skyline, marking the end of a day for many, but for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, it was only the beginning of a new Americana.
Kenney was elected as mayor in the beginning of 2016, a Democrat in a largely similar minded electorate, tasked with leading America’s fifth largest city as the country entered one of the most polarized political atmospheres in recent years. Donald Trump rose to prominence, warning of the dangers of immigrants who would sneak into the country to commit heinous crimes, but the city of Philadelphia turned their back on that narrative. Working with Bill Salvatore of the city’s Parks and Recreation department, the Philadelphia Unity Cup was born. A World Cup-style tournament played over a two-month time frame from September to the beginning of November by teams representing the city’s immigrant communities, the Unity Cup’s inaugural year was met with enthusiasm and promoted, as the name implies, community and togetherness in the City of Brotherly Love.
“Short term, we wanted to give them a platform, provided by the City, to celebrate their country and culture while learning about others,” say Miriam Enriquez and Orlando Almonte, representatives of Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. “Long term, we want every community to feel valued by our City and realize that the rest of the City values them too. The first Unity Cup final took place days before the Presidential election – there has never been a more significant time for all of our communities to feel valued, regardless of their size.”
Going into its second year, the tournament has grown in size from 32 teams to 48, each representing a unique population within the city. It has stayed true to its mission; communities as big as Philadelphia’s Irish or Italian populations will take the field against Belarusians or Bosnians, communities that are slightly smaller, and they will meet each other with respect and dignity to compete honestly in a game that seems it can cross any border. In preparation for the tournament, 28 different countries have competed in friendly matches organized completely on their own, which for Salvatore epitomizes the message of the tournament. “Now you have Ukrainians and Jamaicans or Israelis and Ivorians talking to each other, hanging out, playing a soccer game, taking pictures and enjoying each other’s company,” he says. “You know Southwest Philly may have never met northeast Philly before. So, to me, that’s the whole big picture of it.”
An hour and a half north of Philadelphia is Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty standing representative of a bygone era when ships poured poor, terrified masses at her feet, praying as they stood in line after line that they’d be granted a shot at the infectious American dream and not sent back on the infected boat from which they came. Today, the physical journey to the United States is no longer centered around that Isle of Hope and Tears, but it is not at all less harrowing. With the hope of safety and opportunity comes an equal and opposite potent fear of rejection and uncertainty, a feeling that members of the 2017 tournament’s Refugee Team know all too well. Each of the 23 players and both coaches is a refugee that was resettled to the United States within the last two years, hailing from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cuba. With every day seemingly bringing a new comment by the president on why the United States’ borders would be better off impenetrable by any perceived outsider, there is an understandable uneasiness within their communities, but no executive order ever signed could contain their passion and drive. Despite often working overnight shifts, the players travel from neighborhoods in every corner of the city to practice and prepare with their new community, sharing stories of their days playing in their countries of origin and their dreams for the days ahead. Soccer is their lifeline, a common thread tying together who they were before and who they are now. The two coaches, refugees themselves, wove together the different languages, cultures, and experiences to create one body, working together for one goal; to compete with fellow Philadelphians and foster an understanding and appreciation for the diverse groups the city is home to. The ball rolls the same if you’ve lived in the United States for 30 years or just one, and understanding that fundamental connection is the beauty of the tournament.
Philadelphia sometimes flies under the radar of international news. Lying in the shadow of New York City to the north and Washington D.C. to the south, the birthplace of the great American Experiment sometimes feels like the middle child of the Northeastern corridor. But for the city’s residents, the beauty lies not in flashy lights and high rises, nor government buildings and monuments. Philadelphia’s character lies nestled in neighborhood grocers, in vibrant murals, and in centuries of history hidden in plain sight. Each street holds its own story of the generations of immigrants it housed, starting at the very birth of the nation. “I think it goes back to the whole idea of everyone being welcome here, and that’s really the take home message,” says Salvatore. “You know, for the longest time these communities weren’t connected to their government, and the fact that they are connected and that you can go to a press conference and they’re yelling that we have the best mayor in the country, it means wonders.” Philadelphia has long been nicknamed the City of Brotherly Love, a place where everyone is your neighbor and every day is a celebration of coexistence and collaboration. The diversity here is an asset, not a fatal flaw as the executive branch would like for us to believe. The Unity Cup is more than a soccer tournament, it’s a statement that a threat to anyone in our community is a threat to us all, and the perpetrator will be met with a resistance five million strong. That’s the city of Philadelphia, a place immeasurably complex yet can be described in the four simple words of the Refugee Team’s motto: “Out of many, one”