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Teen refugees from Africa play a role in Winter Classic

by Corey Masisak

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There were about 250 people in the stands at Michigan Stadium on Thursday and Friday, all of whom were charged with placing more than 100,000 seat cushions on the bleachers for the Bridgestone 2014 NHL Winter Classic.

Among this collection of workers were 16 kids wearing neon green touques, which made them easy to spot from anywhere in the stadium. These teenagers live in Lansing, Mich., an hour drive from the Big House, but they have come much farther than that.

All of the kids in this group are refugees from Africa. They came to Lansing from a variety of countries, and once they made that long journey, they all met Pete Lemmer, a lawyer who volunteers as a youth sports coach.


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"These kids are from all over Africa," Lemmer told "Burundi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Somalia are all represented in these 16 kids. We got them all green hats so we could keep track of them and find them.

"My brother-in-law saw an ad in the paper for some part-time laborers. We've been coaching these kids, who are refugees in the Lansing area, for the last three years through St. Vincent Catholic Charities. Now they are growing up and it is like, 'OK, what are they going to do? They're not going to play basketball all their lives, so they need to learn to work.' We thought, 'Let's see if we could hook them up with this part-time gig.' It's worked out pretty well for us."

Jim Solomon, who has coached some of the kids and was helping Lemmer supervise them, added, "Some of them escaped genocide. They've moved from refugee camp to refugee camp for like six of seven years with their parents. There are so many amazing stories. Some of them speak five languages. Most of them speak three or four fluently. They speak Swahili, English, Congolese. French is mostly their main language. ... They're just amazing kids. They're so appreciative of everything."

Lemmer has coached the kids in basketball and track. His work has not gone unnoticed: He was named one of three recipients nationally of the 2013 Phelps-Martin Award for Community Service by the Farm Credit Council during the organization's annual meeting in San Diego.

Three of his pupils now play for the basketball team at Eastern High School in Lansing. One is going to start playing football, and Lemmer boasted that he is the strongest kid in the school with the ability to bench press 350 pounds and squat lift 450.

Nearly all of them play for Eastern's soccer team. None of them knew what a hockey rink looked like before Thursday.

"These kids were learning about the [Michigan-Michigan State] rivalry and what normally happens in this stadium, and now they see this and how could they ever imagine something like this? They're seeing this for the first time," Lemmer said. "Yesterday we were here and they were like, 'what is this? They're going to play what here?' and now today they are saying, 'I want to watch this game. I'd like to see this.' They can't even imagine this, but now they're saying, 'I think this is just like soccer. We could do this.' "

By the end of the day Friday, the entire stadium had become a sea of baby blue, with cushions on every seat. It certainly gave the stadium, which has a giant, iconic maize-colored "M" painted into the bleachers on one side a different look.

"It is something we've done since the first game in Buffalo," NHL Senior Vice President of Events Don Renzulli said. "I don't even know how many I ended up ordering, 110,000 or something like that. Everybody who comes in will have a seat cushion, whether you're in a suite, the press box or in the bowl.

"This is not the normal way to put a seat cushion in, because it is a bench. On a normal seat, you wrap them around the bottom and the seat number is on top. The numbers are on the benches, so if you cover them, no one knows where their seat it. You have to strap them on the bench so everyone can see, 'OK, here's seat No. 15' but it also gives you a pretty good visual when you're down there and can see them all."

Lemmer's kids were diligently working in the southwest corner of the stadium Friday. He praised them for their work ethic and their diligence.

This was easy compared to what some of them have faced in their past, and it also might play a small part in helping them craft a better future.

"In the meantime, we got them all registered with a temp agency because they had to be [for this job]," Solomon said. "So now they are registered with this temp agency and this lady there met them and learned about their situation. She wants to help get them summer jobs and it will just balloon from there."

Lemmer added, "It all started with this part-time NHL gig. It is pretty cool. ... When they came to do this, I was worried about them but they said, 'Coach, don't worry about us. We know how to work hard. We used to work in the fields with no shoes and no gloves.' They're learning."

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