PHILADELPHIA (AP) — During Bawitha Tling's tumultuous journey fleeing war and forced labor under Myanmar's dictatorship — first to a Malaysian refugee camp, and eventually to Philadelphia — one of the few constants in his life was soccer.
"We played every day in our country at school ... in recess time or after school," Tling said. "I came here, and play every day, every weekend. Soccer is my favorite way to relax myself, to escape depression."
Tling, 18, now a business major at a community college, is one of around 800 players participating in a newly created soccer tournament for immigrants organized by the city of Philadelphia. The first match, between Vietnam and Mexico, is scheduled for Friday.
The 32 teams represent countries from India to Ireland, Cambodia to Congo. In the months running up to the tournament, named the Unity Cup, they've been practicing several times a week and holding dozens of friendly matches.
Interest in the inaugural event was strong. Within five days of opening registration, all the team slots were taken, with captains delivering commitment letters by hand to the city's Office of Immigrant Affairs.
"There were people waiting outside the office before they opened at 8 o'clock in the morning," said Bill Salvatore, Unity Cup organizer with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. "It was pretty intense."
Philadelphia's foreign-born population has been booming, growing from barely 100,000 in 1990 to over 200,000 this year — about 13 percent of the population, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Still, the city's professional soccer team, the Union, gets only a fraction of the attention showered on its football and baseball franchises.
The Unity Cup championship will be held Nov. 5 at Citizens Bank Park, home of Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies, and city officials expect at least 5,000 people to attend. The winning team will receive a trophy modeled on the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup, with names of the victors engraved each year.
Organizers are planning an international festival in the stadium's parking lot, with food trucks, craft stalls and performances.
The Unity Cup is the brainchild of Mayor Jim Kenney, who says he got his inspiration from the World Cup.
"Remember, soccer is in every neighborhood," said Kenney, the descendent of Irish immigrants fleeing famine. "The trash talking and the competitions already started between Mexico and Italy, between the Irish and the Polish, the Germans are calling out the Senegalese — I mean it's awesome, it's going to be fun."
The teams aren't restricted by nationality, either. The Indian team has players from Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Morocco and Egypt — giving Indian players a chance to build comradery with other immigrants, not just play against them.
"I really enjoy meeting new guys, forming new networks. The game is a really beautiful game for bringing people together," said Thorne Holder, a Trinidadian living in Philadelphia and the goalie for team Germany. "Soccer is a team sport. I think that's what gives it its allure — friends, friendship, common interests."
Immigrants have long played soccer through grassroots organizations, but the Unity Cup appears to be the first immigrant soccer tournament organized by a government body in the country, according to city officials and U.S. Soccer, the country's governing body of soccer.
Demand has been so high that plans are already being drawn up for next year, with the potential for knockout preliminary rounds by continent — Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas — in order to accommodate more teams. The city envisions the Unity Cup will become a yearly event, Salvatore said.
Players are enthusiastic about the chance to chat with people from ethnic enclaves all over Philadelphia whom they never would have met otherwise.
"It's like family," said Indian team captain Matthew Varughese, an engineer who moved to the U.S. as a child. "We're not competing for money ... We're like brothers. It's good, it's fun, you know — it's family."