EastBay Today

Posted May 9, 2017

The Only Language That Matters

Soccer brings together refugees and Cal State East Bay athletes, faculty

The soccer fields of Cal State East Bay are a far cry from the red dirt fields of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where student Ravis Mubiangata got his start. There, in the streets of Kinshasa, the capital city of 11 million people, Mubiangata and his friends played the game barefoot, outlining a goal using rocks.

But Mabiangata’s worlds will soon collide at a May 11 event designed to bring together American students and faculty and recent immigrants and refugees, hosted by Cal State East Bay and the international nonprofit Soccer Without Borders.

The nonprofit Soccer Without Borders helped Cal State East Bay student Ravis Mubiangata adjust to life in the United States after immigrating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he was 13.

The idea, spearheaded by Mubiangata and Matthew Atencio, associate professor in the kinesiology department and incoming co-director of the Cal State East Bay Center for Sport and Social Justice, is an effort to promote understanding and cooperation.

Humble Beginnings

Like many students at Cal State East Bay, Mubiangata is an immigrant to the United States. The sophomore computer science major moved to Oakland with his family from war-ravaged Central Africa at age 13.

“There were no jobs and we weren’t safe in the Congo,” he says, adding that he likely wouldn’t have graduated high school in his native country, due to his family’s inability to pay the high tuition costs.

Instead, Mubiangata attended Oakland International High School and obtained a free public education. It’s also where he was introduced to Soccer Without Borders, which started in 2006 and uses soccer as a way to create change and inclusion for underserved youth 18 and under, including newly arrived immigrants and refugees.  

At his first practice, Mubiangata was handed a pair of cleats and welcomed with open arms by the program’s coach and founder, Ben Gucciardi.

“He said, ‘Here, keep them.’ I said, ‘you’re kidding!’ I couldn’t believe it,” Mubiangata recalls.

Each of his new teammates had left their countries from all over the globe — Yemen, Eritrea, El Salvador, Mexico, Thailand and Myanmar among others. And to this day, many of them still remain friends, united by their shared experiences. 

“[Mubiangata] spoke no English as a new arrival, acclimated himself to his new surroundings, became the team captain, graduated high school and now attends a four-year college,” Gucciardi says. “[Our organization] connected him with something he was familiar with — soccer. He was going through so many changes and he knew no one, so this became a very important new community for him. He was able to build relationships and make new friends.”

Mubiangata now speaks three languages fluently — French, English and his native Lingala. But he says when it comes to soccer and the 40 countries Soccer Without Borders participants represent in America, there is only one language that matters. 

“Though we don’t speak the same language, we do speak soccer,” Mubiangata says with a smile.

Blending Worlds

While he has outgrown the Soccer Without Borders program, which supports children and teens, Mubiangata still plays with fellow students and professors on intramural teams at Cal State East Bay. It was during one of those games Mubiangata and Atencio discussed how CSSJ — which wants to promote international student engagement on campus — and Soccer Without Border could come together for an event that would blend the goals of both groups.

The event, which is co-sponsored by CSSJ’s student club and the Pioneer Soccer Club, will include games featuring two Soccer Without Borders teams pitted against a Cal State East Bay student-faculty team, where both Atencio and Chair of Kinesiology Paul Carpenter will play. There will first be a one-hour discussion and video presentation at the field house at Pioneer Stadium, followed by three 30-minute matches. The day will culminate in a friendly championship match, with prizes such as soccer jerseys, balls and backpacks. The participants will all be treated to pizza.

Atencio says he hopes the event will raise awareness of the Soccer Without Borders program and recruit future SWB members to become Pioneers at the university.

“[Mubiangata]  is a prime example that these immigrants can make it through the transition in a strange country,” he says. “They can feel part of a network. We don’t want them to fall through the cracks.”

That feeling of inclusion is one Mubiangata says he continually experiences at Cal State East Bay.

“Everyone is so nice and welcoming,” he says. “I can talk to anybody and we all get along. I can’t believe I can play on an intramural soccer team with my professors.”