The World Cup in Russia has received attention all around the world. But one immigrant community has had its attention on a different soccer event.
It takes place at a high school stadium outside Washington, D.C. Instead of a battle between nations, it is a gathering of teams of the same ethnicity.
Welcome to the Uyghur American Cup. Now in its fourth year, the event brings together ethnic Uyghur soccer players -- and fans -- from across North America.
Seven teams compete for the championship. They represent the Uyghur communities in places like Los Angeles, northern Virginia, New York City and even Toronto, Canada.
The five-day event is one that Kudrat never wants to miss. He lives Princeton, New Jersey, and is a member of the Boston-New York Uyghur Football Club. The closest Uyghurs to his home, he says, are more than an hour away by car.
“For me personally, [it's] not just the sport itself, because we all can play in our respective residences, where we live…It’s more of the brotherhood we feel. We share the same roots. And mainly because there aren’t many Uyghurs living in the United States compared to other immigrant communities...this is once in a year something that on a personal level, I never want to miss.”
Who are the Uyghurs?
Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim ethnic group in Central Asia. About 10 million of them live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, a huge area in the country’s northwest. There are also large populations of Uyghurs in countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkey.
In recent years, China has introduced one of the world’s most aggressive policing programs in Xinjiang. Security checkpoints and high-tech surveillance cameras are everywhere.
Government officials say they are fighting a rise in Islamic extremism as well as a separatist movement that calls for an independent Uyghur nation.
Uyghurs living in China face severe restrictions, rights groups say. For many, acts such as practicing Islam, studying the Uyghur language and communicating with friends and family overseas come with great risks.
Recent media reports confirm that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been sent to extrajudicial political re-education camps. The Associated Press reports that some Uyghurs remain in the camps for months without formally being charged with anything.
'No politics, just soccer'
Slowly but surely, Uyghur soccer fans of all ages fill the seats at the Lee High School stadium in Springfield, Virginia. It is the opening day of the 2018 Uyghur American Cup. It is also July 4, America’s Independence Day. Some arrive wearing red-white-and-blue “USA” clothing, including Tahir. He came to the United States earlier this year. Seeing such a large gathering of Uyghurs makes him feel “as if we were at home,” he says.
“Making America as our second home, we are feeling that America provides us safety from Chinese oppression….and provide us a place to be united."
Northern Virginia has two all-Uyghur soccer teams: Taklamakan, the 2018 tournament host, and Uyghur United, the three-time defending Uyghur American Cup champions. The area is home to one of the largest Uyghur communities in North America.
Arafat lives in northern Virginia. He is captain of the Uyghur United soccer team and one of the leaders of the tournament. He helped organize the first-ever Uyghur American Cup in 2015.
“I think soccer is an excellent way to bring the Uyghur people together. It’s in our blood to like sports...When you get into politics or certain areas, a lot of people seem to have different perspectives, different political views...but when it comes to soccer everyone wants to come have fun, support their favorite team. Just a chance for family members to get out here, and just have fun overall."
Nurpari is 15 years old and a Uyghur American. She comes to the tournament with her family and friends each year, she says.
“It’s really,like, nice to see people from your country playing soccer since they don’t have their own actual team. So, it’s nice to see them go against each other.”
Yaxar and Filora live in northern Virginia. They decided at the last minute to come to the opening day of the Uyghur American Cup. They had just finished watching a World Cup match.
“We just came back from a World Cup event but this is, this is bigger."
"Yeah, like more important for us to come here..."
"No politics, no other things involved. Just purely sportsmen. And just a love for the sport.”
For many, the event goes beyond sport, as well. Amir plays for Uyghur United. He says the most important thing the tournament does is help Uyghurs form connections and friendships.
“I get to see my fellow brothers and sisters from other states who I did not get to see. It’s as if we just saw each other yesterday, because it’s just that bond we established. And that's something we want the younger generation to establish and see as well.”
‘We want to start a Dream Team’
Before play begins, all seven teams line up on the soccer field. The players’ young children join them.
The crowd cheers as each team is introduced.
Arafat says he hopes to use this year’s tournament to identify talent and form a so-called "Dream Team" of Uyghur soccer players.
“The ultimate goal is to eventually form a national Uyghur football club and then be able to represent Uyghur people on an international stage.”
For now, though, the seven all-Uyghur clubs are competitors. Coming in, the other teams know it will take a lot to beat Uyghur United. The team plays weekly and has been around since 2005, much longer than any of the other teams.
Amir says his team feels some pressure to win again. “There’s more pressure on [us], but in a fun, competitive way,” he says.
As expected, Uyghur United makes it to the championship game. So does Uyghur Bogda Football Cup, the team from Toronto.
With a final score of 2-1, Uyghur United wins its fourth Uyghur American Cup title in a row.
Even though Nurpari loves to play and watch soccer, she says she was not focused on the final results of the tournament.
“I’m not really specifically rooting for any team, since we’re all Uyghur. Whoever wins, I’ll be happy anyway.”
Ashley Thompson reported this story for VOA Learning English, with some additional materials from the Associated Press. Hai Do was the editor. Dorothy Gundy produced the video.
Words in This Story
soccer - n. a game played between two teams of 11 players in which a round ball is moved toward a goal usually by kicking
residence - n. the place where someone lives
root - n. the family history of a person or a group of people
surveillance - n. the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime
practice - v. to do (something) regularly or constantly as an ordinary part of your life
extrajudicial - adj. not legally authorized
stadium - n. a very large usually roofless building that has a large open area surrounded by many rows of seats and that is used for sports events, concerts, etc.
host - n. a place, team or organization that provides the things that are needed for that event.
perspective - n. a way of thinking about and understanding something (such as a particular issue or life in general)
ultimate - adj. greatest or most extreme
focused - adj. giving attention and effort to a specific task or goal