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Bridging the gap: Chicago sports program unites migrants and residents

The "Sunday Sports" sessions are organized by two childhood friends who empathized with migrants that are new to Chicago.
Bridging the gap: Chicago sports program unites migrants and residents
Posted at 1:51 PM, Jul 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-13 13:52:59-04

A peaceful game of baseball in a park on the South Side of Chicago looks ordinary, but for the players, it is a rare and much-needed morale boost. 

Temporarily sheltering in a shuttered school next to the park, the newly arrived migrants get to do something they love for one afternoon every Sunday. 

"It's a relaxing distraction. It's a good thing," said 22-year-old Alejandro Bella, a Venezuelan migrant who's been staying at the shelter for three months. He said he's looking for a "steady job" to send money back home to his mother and other relatives. 

The "Sunday Sports" sessions are organized by two childhood friends and local residents who empathized with the migrants due to their own immigration stories. 

When the city opened the shelter earlier this year, John Sianghio, who lives next door, thought it would be great to help his new neighbors with ways to get some fresh air and exercise. 

He contacted his friend Otto Rodriguez who was the perfect fit as the Chicago director of Soccer Street USA — a national soccer nonprofit.

SEE MORE: These young refugees are finding their way in America through soccer

"The experience is elevated so that there is some respect and some dignity to these folks that in so many cases have been stripped of that dignity," explained Sianghio, who came to the U.S. as a child from the Philippines. 

Every Sunday, the two friends and their interns show up at the park armed with donated clothes and shoes. 

"A lot of the [migrants] have expressed to us that this is something they can do without stressing about their current situation," explained Rodriguez, whose parents are from Guatemala. 

At first, the two friends only organized soccer. But the asylum seekers — who are mostly from Venezuela — quickly explained that they also love baseball. 

So, Rodriguez and Sianghio brought in Leonard Thomas, a neighbor who's a baseball coach and owns a bunch of equipment. 

"I appreciate John and Otto bringing this to me because it's been fun," said Leonard, adding that "no matter your skin color, language barrier, whatever orientation that may be, everybody deserves a better life for themselves. And that's all [the migrants] want." 

For Bella — one of the asylum-seekers — 'Sunday Sports' offer a huge emotional release. 

"I want to thank Otto and his friend because they are kind people. They help us," he said.

SEE MORE: Physical divide: How income inequalities are impacting youth fitness

The former school is one of 10 sites housing migrants across Chicago. It is currently home to roughly 600 asylum-seekers. When it opened, there was serious pushback from some residents who felt their under-resourced community was not a good fit. 

Today, some are still unhappy. 

"They stay out there all night making noise and everything," said local resident Luis Cardone. 

Others, like the coaches, stress that the vast majority of newcomers don't bother anyone. 

Still, recognizing that there is some tension, the two childhood friends hope to make things better by encouraging more migrants and more residents to come out and play together. 

"To at least to begin some conversation between the two sides. And even if there is a language barrier, like Otto likes to say, the ball doesn't have a language," Sianghio said.


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