In the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, a youth team is making waves in both the grassroots and professional soccer landscapes. With the majority of its roster containing refugees from countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania, Clarkston FC is not only developing the skills of its talented kids, but giving them a community to thrive in unlike any other they’ve experienced.
Clarkston, Georgia — a suburb nestled 19 miles from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the heart of soccer in Atlanta. This city is home to one of the most diverse populations in the United States. Commonly referred to as the Ellis Island of the South, the 1.1-square-mile city is home to 1,500 new refugees a year.
Amongst the diversity and ever-changing population lies Clarkston FC, a youth team comprised mostly of refugees who have found unity in football and in the community.
Clarkston FC grew from the Soccer in the Streets organization, which gives underprivileged youth and refugee children a safe haven to grow and develop using the beautiful game. In addition to building character and social skills on the football pitch, the free program includes a Life Works class, which teaches life skills including applying to college and helps the kids get acclimated to life in America while maintaining their own cultural identity. The program is open to both boys and girls, with the girls’ program rapidly increasing in particular.
Most of the players are refugees from all over the world, with many fleeing their war-torn home countries for a safer life. Unlike their counterparts on opposing teams, the players of Clarkson FC have gone through extreme hardships and conquered nearly insurmountable odds to get to where they’re at today. The stress of a high-intensity match is nothing compared to what they’ve experienced in the past.
Rubeni Manowa was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has been living in the U.S. for six years. His 18-month journey to Clarkston by way of Tanzania saw the loss of his sister, but through everything he has maintained one of the most positive attitudes you will ever encounter.
On the pitch he spends time with his teammate and friend, Elvis Niyo, who fled from Tanzania 11 years ago. Both players spent time in refugee camps before landing in Clarkston.
The club’s coaches are also refugees, and like their players have escaped their countries for fear of war. Abdul Bangura has played professionally in Sweden, England, and the U.S., while also representing Sierra Leone at the international level. Having a coach with this kind of experience not only is an asset to the team’s development, but also shows its players that someone thrust into the same circumstances as them can make it to the next level of the game.
Joining Bangura is Adam Adam, a refugee from Sudan that began as a player with Clarkston FC. Both coaches hold U.S. Soccer licenses and they are looking to continue climbing the ranks. Adam wants to break into coaching at the local high school where most of the kids attend, and Bangura is looking to continue rising through the coaching license ladder while pushing for more success with the club.
Clarkston FC is no stranger to success, winning two state championships and playing in the U.S. Soccer regionals in South Carolina in the past. Talented alumni include Lagos Kunga, who signed with Atlanta United as a home grown player last year.
Beginning with just one U-16 team, the club now has a U-19 squad for both boys and girls, in addition to a U-12 team, all of which are competing with pay-to-play teams throughout the state of Georgia.
The continued growth of the club will continue with the transit system pitches that are popping up around Atlanta such as the newly-opened West End and Five Points stations on the MARTA rail system. Soccer in the Streets and Station Soccer plan on opening other stations that will create a free-to-play league across Atlanta. This will help coaches find and groom players into what specifically Clarkston FC is looking for in a player, only fueling the growth that is starting at Clarkston FC and its community. The team and program once again shows that even those from the most dire of situations aren’t immune to the healing power of the beautiful game.