For many young Calgarians originally from war torn and corrupt nations, the sight of uniformed police officers in their community can be an upsetting one.
That tension has often continued in marginalized communities. Especially when the interactions between police and citizenry is not a positive one.
Over the weekend, Umoja Community Mosaic held their annual Soccer without Boundaries soccer festival. The games had Calgary Police Service officers playing soccer with children from nations such as Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan, Congo, Columbia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Somalia.
“This is a very important to the community because everybody knows that sometimes there’s tension between police and the community, because most interactions are not a positive,” said Umoja Community Mosaic founder, Jean-Claude Munyezamu.
“This is where police, and kids, and the families can interact in a positive way, doing something they have in common and build a relationship.”
Mohamed Ahmet, 9, said he was having a lot of fun playing against the Calgary police constables on Saturday.
“The reason why they built this camp and made it for everything is so people from all around the world, 25 different nationalities, can like have so much fun,” he said.
Munyezamu, a refugee from Rwanda, created Soccer without Boundaries in 2010 as a way to help immigrant children living in low-income housing in Glenbrook. The program began with free drop-in soccer on Saturdays as an alternative to the kinds of negative and harmful activities Munyezamu saw them engaging in.
“Initially when we started, it was for just one, and only one reason: to keep kids out of trouble,” he said.
Today, the kids in the program have a 100 per cent graduation rate from high school. Many graduates have gone to become coaches and coordinators at the soccer camps Umoja Community Mosaic runs throughout the summer across the city. A number of players have gone on to successful university soccer careers internationally. One even tried out to play professionally in England.
“There is almost no violence at all—zero—almost no police involvement with the kids. It’s a wonderful preventative,” he said.
The efforts of Munyezamu and his staff has gone far beyond soccer though. Recently, during the pandemic, Umoja Community Mosaic added culturally appropriate food hamper programs with the goal of providing food bank users the kind of food they would have purchased themselves.
They also run tutoring and after school programs, community outreach, and settlement support for newcomers.
Shifting perceptions on police
Munyezamu said that one of the goals for the annual kids versus cops soccer games was to shift the perception of the police.
“Most of these families, they come to this country because of men in uniform.”
He said that the police officer who plays soccer with one of the festival participants one year, would then have a more positive opinion of that officer in the future.
“Today, children know his name because he was here, and this is positive because they will not be afraid to call police when they need the police,” Mumyezamu said.
“This is very, very important and I think we can do this often where community and police can meet and know each other. This is how you solve a problem on the on the community level, also is a preventing of escalation of other things.”
Constable Abdi Hassan joined with Munyezamu in 2021 for last year’s games, and jumped right back in when offered the chance to participate this year.
“It’s very important for myself to be here. I see myself as a role model to some of these kids,” said Const. Hassan.
“I think it was important giving back to the to the kids as well, and just someone that kind of looks like them as well.”
Calgary police are community members, too
Hassan said that at the end of the day, when police officers take off their uniforms, they’re the same human beings as everyone else.
“Without the community we’re nothing as the police, right?” Hassan said.
“So, honestly, having a great good relationship with the community is everything.”
He said that he’s seen first hand the effects of programs like Munyezamu’s to reduce crime and increase community.
“It’s showing organization, teamwork skills, and it’s giving a lot of confidence to these youths, and understanding that there’s people out there that really care about them.”
Calgary needs to be a more inclusive, diverse city
Ward 5 Coun. Raj Dhaliwal said that Umoja Community Mosaic is making Calgary a more inclusive and diverse city.
“We need to make our city more inclusive, celebrate our diversity, build that equity, and there are so many actually deserving groups in our city, and we need to start activating them,” Dhaliwal said.
“That’s my focus, and I think most of the council believes that way, too.”
Coun. Dhaliwal pointed to the recent spike in gun violence that has largely been centred within a six kilometre radius in NE Calgary. To date, the city has seen 97 shootings, two more than the 95 that occurred for the entirety of 2021.
“For us to fight crime—gun violence, crime has gone spiked in last couple of months—one of the easiest way we can do it, and the cheapest way is investing in these programs,” Dhaliwal said.
“We can get these kids engaged, get them onto a soccer field, hockey rink, and get them involved so we can keep them away from streets and we can keep them away from drugs and violence.”
He said that this was one of the recommendations that came out of the community safety task force. The federal government provided funding for crime reduction efforts. He said the efforts now would be to ensure that community groups would have equitable access to the resources provided.
Stigmatizing the northeast
Coun. Dhaliwal said that more needed to be done to stop stigmatization of Northeast Calgary.
“You know, I’m already hearing this. I was just yesterday in the community and they all have this perception that northeast Calgary get gets ignored when it comes to the services, when it comes to the care, when it comes to the uplift of the community,” he said.
“So that’s a stigma some of these kids are living with. They’re like ‘oh, you know, northeast, we are as someone described it, a ghetto.'”
He said that as long as that stigmatization happens, it’s going to lead to a situation where someone pulls a trigger.
“In my opinion, why these kids are pulling a trigger is very important. We need to look at that root cause,” Dhaliwal said.
“Some of that root cause starts with the very young, and it’s sometimes cultural based what they heard in house, where they come from, sometimes broken nations where their families had gone through civil war.
“So those are the things we need to work on.”