Syrian Eagles: How soccer is helping refugees settle into new Toronto home

TORONTO – BMO Field, Toronto FC’s home stadium, is one of the first sights welcoming new arrivals to the city.

From the stands, fans can regularly see planes gliding by in their approach to Toronto City Airport, their landing gear extended in anticipation. For the passengers, the pitch and maple leaf-emblazoned bleachers are one of the first things they see.

It was only fitting, then, that Toronto FC would extend a warm welcome to their house to one of the biggest groups of recent arrivals to the city. Last week, they hosted a fellow soccer team, of a different sort — the Syrian Eagles, made up of refugees, and created to help the recent arrivals find community and settle in their new home.

On Monday, Sept. 26, the Eagles joined Toronto FC for training and a small-sided match. And then, their community turned out in force some two days later, when Orlando City SC visited the home side at BMO. More than 1,300 fellow Syrian newcomers joined the Eagles at the match, thanks to tickets distributed by the Canadian Arab Institute.

“Most refugees feel unfamiliar with the system,” said the institute’s Rania Younes of the refugees’ attempts to navigate life in Toronto. “But here they are on the field, they know the rules [of soccer].”

The Syrian Eagles visited Toronto FC for training day. Photo via Toronto FC

The Syrian Eagles and their friends seemed to find themselves right at home in the stands. They came equipped with a drum and an air horn, chanting, clapping and jumping from the first whistle to the last. Their corner of the stadium steadily grew to include dozens of men, women and children and although they weren't as coordinated as other sections, their cheers gradually rippled through neighboring rows of supporters.

“I was looking to support a team, an established team,” Syrian Eagles founder Naveen Faress, describing the moment she decided to form the club. “[But] my brother said, ‘Why not a refugee team?’”

To recruit players, they spread the word on WhatsApp groups for housing refugees and they posted flyers in restaurants, community centers and mosques. “We went to the Toronto Plaza Hotel where refugees land,” she recalled. “I only got one player from that. The rest, I don’t know how they heard of us.”

The first week, 11 players showed up. A week later, word had spread, and the team had 27 players — all Syrians with the exception of one Kurdish player. They took a vote and chose the Syrian Eagles as their name in Toronto’s Muslim Soccer League.

“The purpose was to use soccer as a tool to integrate refugees in the community,” Faress said, “to overcome fears of getting on the TTC [Toronto public transit] and getting out there.”

“The majority of the team works, but not in the same fields they were working in Syria,” she added. “My goal is to connect them.”

The Syrian Eagles recently wrapped up league play, and next year Faress plans on running two teams: a competitive squad that holds weekly practices, and an amateur team that is explicitly recreational. This, she says, will allow for more participants while giving competitive players the opportunity to excel.

Their inaugural season started out well enough, but the Syrian Eagles faded down the stretch against other teams that had been together for years. “But they were very synced [up],” Faress noted about her club.

And their numbers might only grow. Of the 25,000 Syrian refugees the Canadian government pledged to accept in October 2015, the City of Toronto estimates that it will be home to 7,180 by the end of the year. 

The Syrian Eagles also enjoyed a postgame meet and greet with MLS legend Dwayne De Rosario. Photo via USA Today Sports Images

Last week's Toronto FC match helped some of them continue to connect with their new community, while offering up a local MLS team to support.

Mustafa Fadal, a central midfielder for the Syrian Eagles, was part of the group that made the trek to BMO Field. “I have one goal and three assists,” he happily volunteered, marveling over his visit to TFC’s practice facilities earlier in the week.

“We hope to play there,” he added.

He and his teammates walked together through the concourse, wearing the white, grey, and red Syrian Eagles kits donated by someone on Facebook. Fadal donned a Toronto FC flag like a superhero’s cape on top of the jersey and as they merged with the crowd, they clapped and chanted: “T-F-C! To-ron-to!”

At one point in the 71st minute, TFC's supporters initiated the thunder clap sequence, which has become a fixture at BMO Field matches. And as the crowd began to join in the rhythmic clap sequence, the Syrian Eagles section quickly caught on, pausing and clapping in unison from their perch on the opposite end of the stadium.

The significance and symbolism of the moment was not lost on anyone.