Sports are their safe haven

by BRAD TAGGART

When the air starts to get cold and the grass begins to freeze it means one thing here in Utah: church basketball is about to begin.

For many men and women in Utah church basketball is a way to spend time with friends and get to know new members of their communities. However, for two individuals it is much more than that. 

For brothers Hau, 17, and Minh Nguyen, 13, church basketball is a place to belong, an organization to be part of. Church basketball is their release from the harsh reality that invades their past and their minds.

Hau and a friend in Salt Lake City.

Hau and a friend in Salt Lake City. Photo by Brad Taggart

In their home country of Vietnam, Hau and Minh were victims of war and poverty.  They spent most of their childhood in refugee camps where they weren’t able to play sports, much less basketball.

But these two boys were among the lucky ones.  After spending the first nine years of their lives in the refugee camps they were given the opportunity to come to the U.S.  This is a process that takes time and many efforts from many people on their behalf.

“I remember praying to God while I was in the camp to let me free and to live a good life,” Hau said.  “At first nothing happened and I didn’t know if there was a God but then we were helped and freed. I will never forget that God rescued me.”

The International Rescue Committee was the answer to Hau’s prayer.  The IRC is an organization based in New York City that helps individuals and families like these boys come into the U.S. and escape the horrific life of the refugee camps. 

Minh, 13, moved to Dallas before settling in Salt Lake City.

Minh, 13, moved to Dallas before settling in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of the Nguyen family.

Once the necessary paperwork was complete the two boys and their mother ended up in Dallas.  This is where they were introduced to the game of basketball and were shown the ropes by some of the volunteers at the IRC.

After spending a few years in Dallas the boys and their mother moved to Utah to be with some relatives from Vietnam.

“All I wanted to know was if there would be basketball in our new home,” Hau said.  “When I found out that there was I was very excited because I really like basketball now.”

The boys were told about church basketball by a friend from school and have not stopped going ever since.  “I didn’t know if it was OK to play basketball at a church,” Nguyen said. “I asked my mom and she said it was OK and that I should have fun. I was really happy when she told me that.”

Randy Kruger, activities coordinator for the Riverside Stake in Salt Lake City, said, “Its great to see so many new faces. They [Hau and Minh] seem to really enjoy the basketball and it’s a good way to befriend some kids or adults in our community that may not be LDS.”

Church ball has been around for several years and every year it seems to get more popular. Members of the LDS church are the ones responsible for inviting those friends who like to play basketball but don’t have anywhere to play it. 

“I have invited a couple of friends,” said Kalab Cox, a member of the 29th Ward basketball team in the Riverside Stake. “My one buddy said that he thought the church was cool for putting together this league.” 

Basketball isn’t the only sport refugees can find in Utah. Soccer is a very popular sport around the world and many refugees have found places to play in the valley on a weekly basis.

In Rose Park soccer begins every Sunday at 9:00 a.m. and lasts until about 1:00 p.m.  Anyone is welcome to play.

Hau is one of many people who play soccer there. “I like to play basketball in the winter and soccer in the summer,” Hau said. “I am really bad at soccer though. I think I am better at basketball so I play that more.”

The sports continue to gain followers and more and more refugees are finding a way to get involved and play the sports they love.

“Over 30 players come out on a regular basis,” said Gilbert Sanchez, a member of the family that started playing every Sunday. “Every Sunday it seems to get bigger and bigger.” Some of the players come from all over the world. 

A small town just a few miles from where Hau and Minh grew up in Vietnam.

A small town just a few miles from where Hau and Minh grew up in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of the Nguyen family.

“We have players from Africa, Asia, South America and from here in Utah,”  Sanchez said. “We want everyone to come play and have fun.”

But Kruger and others hope refugees will continue to find their way to the basketball court.

“I just want to continue to see more and more newcomers,” Kruger said. “If they are or aren’t refugees I want them to feel invited and welcome. That is our whole goal with this church basketball league.”

Hau and his younger brother Minh will continue to play as long as they can. “If they will let me play ’til I am 70 years old I will still come and play,” Minh said. “As long as I can walk and shoot the ball I will keep coming.”