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Team Of Refugee And Immigrant Children To Represent Iowa In International Tournament

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Most of the boys on the team want to be professional soccer players when they get older. Their coaches tell them to focus on skills and leadership so club team coaches will notice them.

The 13 and under team for Genesis Football Club met for their last practice Thursday morning before they drove out to Minnesota. They planned to leave by 6 a.m. the next day to make it to Blaine, Minnesota in time for the Target USA Cup soccer tournament.

The tournament will host teams from all over the country and players from all over the world. And Genesis is one of them. Their players' families originally came from Somalia, Liberia, Burundi, Tanzania, Spain and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sam Gabriel, the coach, moved to Iowa as a refugee from Liberia. He said he is always working on leveling the playing field for children of refugees and immigrants in the Des Moines area.

“Typically, teams that look like us taking part in this tournament, usually travel from Africa," Gabriel said as he chuckled. "So you have all immigrant kids coming from Iowa, representing Iowa, that’s something that will probably not happen for a very long time for this tournament."

Gabriel joked about how it's possible some people may think of Genesis as the "African team." His purpose in starting the team was to create a level playing field for kids, no matter where they or their families came from. He spotted the tournament back in 2019 when a team from his home country, Liberia, competed.

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Gabriel stepped in to the practice to show the players a specific move for their last practice before their tournament. "Don't run in without commitment," he told them.

"And that's when I discovered it and I was like, 'Wow, wow, if this team can travel all the way from Liberia to come to Blaine, Minnesota. Then, what am I doing?" he said.

He started working to secure funding for his team to participate. Since the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was extra time to do that. Unfortunately, Gabriel said, his team doesn't have access to the same sort of funding as other club teams, so they do rely on some donations.

Gabriel co-founded the nonprofit Genesis Youth Foundation, which the soccer teams are run through, along with his wife Tricia. It offers soccer as part of its programming, but it also focuses on empowering the kids academically and artistically. Some programming is free, while there are scholarship opportunities for others.

Gabriel said he wants to help kids who don't have the money to be involved in an extracurricular sport or activity. This is something he knows well. When he was a young soccer player who just arrived in Iowa, he depended on coaches and other families for financial support.

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The soccer players counted out their equipment at their practice before leaving for Minnesota. Hannah Toresdahl, the AmeriCorps VISTA Marketing Team Member for Genesis Youth Foundation, wrote down their numbers.

"I kept hearing the word burden and the feeling of not being included in the very thing that gave me hope when coming to the U.S. caused many complications while growing up," Gabriel said on the Genesis Youth Foundation website.

The budget for the trip is around $5000, and about $3000 of that was raised through the community. Genesis asked for only a small fee from each player that ranged from $100 to $350.

Torlawoe Monger, 12, is the team's captain. He said he thinks the team is prepared. They've even gotten used to early practices. He wants to make a career out of soccer.

“When me and my mom are praying, she'd be like, ‘Oh, I pray that my son is like, a doctor.’ Then when we're done praying, I’m like, ‘Mom, I don't want to be a doctor, I'm gonna be a professional soccer player,'" Monger said. He explained that soccer can get pretty expensive

The 18 boys who will compete were selected to play in the Red Flight Bracket, which is one of the most competitive divisions in the tournament. In the past, 22 U.S. states and 20 countries have been represented through more than 1100 teams at the tournament.

This will be the first time the team will play outside of the state. Destine King, 13, is looking forward to playing new teams he's never played against. Someday he wants to play soccer for Barcelona.

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Torlawoe Monger, 13, is the team captain of Genesis FC. At times at practice, he lead the team in warm-ups. His parents are from Liberia, but he was born in Iowa. When asked how he felt about the tournament, he said he was "excited, really excited."

"Soccer is like my passion, my hobby. I like to do it anytime, any day," King said. "[At the tournament] people will probably think that we come from a small place, but we're actually a good team."

He said he's mostly excited, but just a little nervous about the pressure. Fellow teammate, and 13-year-old, Gerald Wah said he's also mostly excited but admits he's nervous about losing.

Tricia Gabriel, co-founder of Genesis Youth Foundation, said she hopes all of Iowa will help cheer on the team.

"I think this is a life-long experience that they're going to have, that they will keep for a very long time. So I'm glad to be a part of it," she said.

The tournament will go on all weekend from Friday through Sunday.