Sami Arnaout celebrated with more than 80 spectators as the World Cup soccer game between the United States and Ghana splashed across three 40-inch, high-definition TVs set up in Congress Square Plaza on Monday.
The crowd cheered as the United States scored a goal. But for Arnaout, bringing the immigrant community together through a mutual love of soccer was a better goal than the ones seen on TV.
“We wanted to connect people for the World Cup and bring everyone together to forget about their differences and class levels,” Arnaout said of organizing the screening in the park. “A place to be together.”
When Arnaout, a 34-year-old Portland resident and member of the Parkside Neighborhood Association, came to Maine from Syria, he wanted to get involved with the immigrant community.
Along with Burundi native Armand Turinyungu, Arnaout organized a group of people to remove snow from corners blocking a sidewalk in the Parkside neighborhood. When it got warmer, the group moved to a neighborhood park where they played pickup soccer games.
In the last few weeks, the group has grown into a multiorganization collaborative called the Portland Soccer Coalition, which aims to unite members of the community who love soccer.
With the World Cup underway in Brazil, the group wanted to find places around town where people could watch the games in family-friendly settings.
“A lot of the immigrant community cannot afford cable TV, and soccer for new Americans is the big sport,” Arnaout said. “They have a passion to watch the games and this is a great opportunity for them to watch it for free.”
Grace Scale, a program director with The Opportunity Alliance – a community support group in Portland that has partnered with the soccer coalition – agreed.
“It’s a way to not just unite soccer fans, but to integrate the community’s immigrants and asylum seekers without having to bring up big-topic issues,” Scale said.
With the help of Tim Gillis, a soccer enthusiast and freelance reporter for the Portland Daily Sun, the coalition has set up World Cup viewing parties at restaurants, bars and community centers across the city, including the event at Congress Square Plaza.
Gillis said the parties are an opportunity for Portland’s international community to come together to watch the tournament, especially the communities whose members don’t drink alcohol and wouldn’t feel comfortable watching the games in a bar.
Lanssine Traore, who came to the United States from Mali, said he heard about the viewing party from friends and came to cheer for Ghana.
“I thought there was going to be a big screen, but it’s a bit little,” Traore said while focusing intensely on the game, which the United States won, 2-1. “There’s a lot of people here, so that’s good. I’ll be back.”
Watching parties will be held at the Parkside Neighborhood Center, Howard Reiche Community School, Think Tank, Brian Boru, Taco Escobarr and other locations during the World Cup, which runs until Sunday, July 13.
A schedule of the events can be found at here.