Words and Photos by: Itzel Garcia
Video and audio by: Katie Keenan and James Grachos
AUSTIN—On Saturday mornings, Zilker park’s soccer field becomes a faint memory of Eritrea, a small country located in the so-called Horn of Africa peninsula, according to Britannica.
The soccer field fills with the fluid movements of soccer players, with their sweaty faces and their loud, emotional shouting in a language strange to Austin. The players run, they kick, they dance with a soccer ball scribbled with memories attached to their feet and sometimes, they even fight for who gets to do the free kicks.
But when noon comes around, from the soccer field they go back to sit down, back to the road and their jobs as taxi drivers in a city they now call home.
“We sit in a car 15 hours a day, we need exercise,” Teklehaimanot, or Tekle, said. “So me and a couple of friends decided to start a soccer team.”
However, the newly-formed Eritrean team is not only an outlet for exercise, it is also a need for community.
“We all met on (an) immigrant shelter, some of us came here like four years ago, I came three years ago, other friends six months ago,” Tekle said. “So we tried to make a community.”
Another player, Oumer, agreed.
“It unites us,” Oumer said. “It gets our hearts beating.”
Community building for Tekle, Oumer, and their friends starts at 8 a.m, as the red-hot sun sets on the open field. The parking lot nearby quickly becomes busy with bright, neon-green taxi cabs. Then, the team members take to the field. They begin to chatter amongst themselves, then stretch in flowing motions. They huddle around a bench near the field drinking water and joking. Finally, they set up the goal posts to begin playing.
For the Eritrean soccer players, the sport is a process they all had in common before arriving to Austin.
“I grew up watching soccer, like La Liga, Syrian and European soccer. In our country, soccer is a big deal,” Tekle said. “My favorite player is Cristiano Ronaldo. I love my mom, he loves his mom, he didn’t want to leave her. I love him.”
Tekle remembers playing soccer in high school, fondly, even when the country was ruled by a young, constricting dictatorship.
“Eritrea is beautiful, there’s no violence, no one carries arms, it’s a very peaceful country, but the dictatorship is the problem,” Tekle said.
In 2015, a U.N. report found that Eritreans are “subject to systems of national service and forced labour that effectively abuse, exploit and enslave them for indefinite periods of time.”
Oumer said Eritrea is comparable to North Korea, given the restrictive dictatorship that has been in power since 1991, when the country gained independence from Ethiopia.
“Even though North Korea has electricity, has water, our country doesn’t even have that, it’s a very tough life,” Oumer said.
As of 2015, only 58 percent of the Eritrean population has access to water, according to the World Bank.
According to the U.N. an estimate of 400,000 Eritreans—9% of the country’s population—out of a total population of four million, have fled in recent years, not taking into account those who die en route while escaping the situation.
“My entire generation fled the country, illegally,” Tekle said.
But despite escaping the country and not having plans to return, Tekle sees his home country reflected in Austin.
“Austin is amazing, I feel like I am home,” Tekle said. “The weather is similar.”
Some Saturdays, even other parts of Africa come a little bit closer. The last rivalry game they had was against an Ethiopian team. Tekle’s and Oumer’s team lost 3-2, but that only motivated the team for the future.
“They were better, more organized, they’ve been here longer, but we will get better, we will train more.” Tekle said. “Soccer is in our blood, my friend.”