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Kennedy Park soccer community inspires documentary by UMaine alumnus

Courts of Belonging,” a 10-minute short film directed by Santiago Tijerina, features Kennedy Park Football Club (KPFC) and its access to a soccer-dedicated court in Portland.

Residents of East Bayside with unique backgrounds can establish meaningful connections through a shared interest in the sport. A singular commonality has the potential to form deep friendships in the face of language barriers and differing experiences in America.

“A sport as simple as soccer has the power to really make someone feel like they belong here, Tijerina said. “That this is a place where they’re welcome, their home away from home. So, it’s not just a sport… It’s bigger than that. It’s this global tool for peacebuilding, community building.”

In 2023, Tijerina graduated from the University of Maine Honors College. His efforts as Narrative Content Coordinator at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center (GPIWC) are based on short and long-term projects.

Tijerina is working on a bi-weekly podcast about GPIWC and its community efforts. He also plans to release a bi-weekly short film series about immigrant-owned restaurants in Portland. His long-term project is producing a forty-minute version of the documentary. The extended cut of “Courts of Belonging” is currently in the pre-production stage with GPIWC as its fiscal sponsor.

“The reason I found myself there was because I relate to a lot of them. I am a first-gen American. My parents immigrated from Colombia. For me, making friends has always been in the international community,” Tijerina said.

KPFC in Portland was co-founded by Jon Cross and Hany Ramadan. The organization focuses mainly on the immigrant community and helps youth soccer players become leaders. Members from all walks of life interact with one another through a universal soccer identity.

Futsal, also known as “indoor football,” is a version of soccer played on a lined hardcourt. In 2021, a futsal court was built at the heart of Portland in East Bayside, the most diverse neighborhood in Maine.

“That court has so many people from many different countries, and some speak English better than others. So they help each other, they support each other. A lot of them go to the same schools, so they form that bond and friendship,” said Tijerina.

The documentary opens with a comparison to Anthony Bourdain’s description of the dinner table as a place where people in opposition to one another find common ground. According to Cross, a soccer ball shares the same function as a “great leveler.”

From there, “Courts of Belonging” provides clips of the players in action, drone footage courtesy of Liiban Adaan and the first-hand accounts of two current teammates.

Biken Gurung has been a player at Kennedy Park for three years. In the film, he emphasized his passion for the game and its strong sense of camaraderie.

“Meeting new people, sharing experiences, making friends, especially when you’re all the way from Nepal, all the way from Asia, everyone is welcoming. So, that’s the best part,” said Gurung.

Eliezer Simao also described his experience of immigrating to Maine and finding a place in the Kennedy Park community.

“I think that a lot of people resonated with the final interviewee, Eliezer from Angola. The fact that he knew about this place even before coming to the US. The power that this court has. A lot of people enjoyed that,” Tijerina said.

Another contributor to “Courts of Belonging” is Assistant Director Anthony Fiori. He has been engaged with the community since before the court was built. Fiori helped with the interviewing process, release forms and obtaining parental permission.

“The court has a culture of its own, one that has formed organically from friends and strangers of all backgrounds coming together and figuring out rules, values, and acceptable behaviors, all without the guidance of a higher authority,” said Fiori. “The result has been the creation of a culture where people, regardless of their age, skill, gender, race, nationality, etc., are welcomed, respected, and able to find an inclusive community centered around this beautiful game.”

Soccer can be considered a retention tool. Portland’s investment in the sport has paid off in regard to civic engagement. Kennedy Park Pickup, men’s and women’s league teams and locals frequently use the futsal court. Anyone who enjoys soccer can go there and form close bonds regardless of cultural differences.

“Soccer is sort of a universal language, if you will. Your personality is displayed on the court or on a field with a soccer ball. You can really tell who people are just based on how they play and how they react. In that sense, they’re speaking a common language,” said Tijerina.

Tijerina underlined the importance of being ethical in representing subjects to the public. Stories are shared most accurately when a researcher is immersed in the community they speak on behalf of, and doing so establishes familiarity and trust.

“My big belief as a documentary filmmaker is that if you’re going to tell a story about a community, you should be a part of that community before telling their story. I’ve been living in Portland for six months, and I didn’t start filming until after five months… I was in that community. Everyone knew me. We were all friends,” Tijerina said.

Those interested in the extended film or seeing how they can help should contact Santiago at Questions can also be directed toward the GPIWC via

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