LEWISTON — On a recent fall afternoon, African language filled the air in the field behind the Androscoggin Bank Colisee. Dozens of boys played soccer as fans, coaches and referees watched.
Ibrahim Mohamed, 14, and Liban Negeye, 13, ran up and down the field after the ball. The two play for the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine. Mohamed, a striker, is an assistant captain, entrusted with being a good example for other boys.
“I like soccer,” he said. “A lot of my friends play. It's my favorite sport. I've been playing since I was little.”
He started playing in the refugee camps of Kenya, where he was born and lived for years. Here in Lewiston, soccer “gives me something to do,” Mohamed said. “When I'm bored, I don't just sit in the house and watch TV. I go out and play.”
That is the association's goal, keeping boys off the streets, out of trouble and in school, and giving them something positive to do.
In recent years, 2,000-plus Somali Bantus have moved to Lewiston. Some of their children are doing well, said organizer Rilwan Osman, 26, a youth leader who works as an interpreter and parent coordinator at Longley Elementary School.
But faced with adapting to a new culture, others have started smoking, gotten into fights and indulged in juvenile crime. Many arrived with little education, behind other students their same age. Discouraged, some drop out of school altogether.
All that prompted Osman and others to do something. In 2008, youths were invited to a big meeting and asked whether they wanted to belong to a Somali Bantu group offering soccer and programs to help with school. They said yes, Osman said.
Two years later, the association offers soccer, help with schoolwork, mentors who work with students, counseling and guest speakers, including police who talk to youths and parents. The group also provides parenting support, classes to help parents become citizens and translators.
For boys, soccer is the carrot.
About 150 play in two divisions, one for younger boys, another for ages 13 to 18. There are no girls' teams; boys are the target.
“They were the ones getting into trouble, not the girls,” Osman said, watching a soccer game. “They're here, not downtown, shoplifting or fighting.”
The younger boys, and some Bantu parents, don't understand the consequences of fighting in this country, Osman said.
Some Banto boys see fighting as normal, as it used to be back home. Association leaders try to explain "here it is different. Everything is documented which will affect their future. I don't want that to happen to our younger generation," Osman said.
Since the association formed, it's programs have grown. So many boys signed up for a summer tournament this summer that five teams had to be created, Osman said. “Soccer is what they want to do.”
But to play, boys have to obey rules.
“If you join a team, you have to be respectful.” No fighting or swearing, Osman said. “If you swear, you sit down."
Good conduct is encouraged off the field, too, he said. Players are told, “If you see someone fighting, let us know. We're going to talk to them.”
Sometimes it's hard for the players not to swear, coach Jama Warsame said. It takes time. “This is a new culture for them."
Lewiston police say the youth association's work is paying off.
Last December, police reported crimes linked to Somali boys who attacked and robbed individuals. Osman and other Somali leaders went to police to brainstorm ways to intervene and reduce juvenile crime.
In the past year, “it's drastically improved,” said Sgt. Marc Robitaille, who works with the police department's Community Resource Team. “They're not only sending a positive message to the Somali Bantu youths, they're actually teaching role modeling,” using high school and college students as mentors.
Last year's attacks were isolated incidents, Robitaille said. “What I've seen is intervention going on,” not just through the association, but with others including Catholic Charities and the downtown Trinity Jubilee Center.
The three groups are sending the right messages, working with parents and emphasizing the importance of staying in school, Robitaille said, adding that he “can't say enough” about them. “They are the boots-on-the-ground type of people.”