NEW YORK, NY -- Every Saturday, Lazaro Us Baquiax, 17, plays soccer in the South Bronx near Yankee Stadium. This past week, his favorite sport gave him the opportunity of a lifetime - meeting the Pope.
"It was a really important moment for me," said Us Baquiax in Spanish. "I really like this Pope. He is well respected by everyone. Meeting him was really special and I will always remember it," said the teen, who is from Guatemala.
Us Baquiax and teammate Ariel Mejía, 18 and originally from Honduras, were present at the Our Lady Queen Of Angels Catholic school in East Harlem on Friday, one of the scheduled stops for Pope Francis.
"It was great," said Mejia in Spanish. "We were able to give him a jersey and a soccer ball too."
Us Baquiax and Mejía are both players on La Union, an organized soccer team made up of young people who immigrated recently from Central America. The team is organized by South Bronx United, a nonprofit organization that uses soccer to engage with youth in the community.
"We partner with Catholic Charities on a few different levels," said Brendan Davis, the organization's Legal Partnerships and Development Coordinator. "And as part of being in their network, 10 players had the opportunity to meet the Pope."
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Mejia and Us Baquiax both arrived in the United States almost two years ago, part of the numbers of young Central American immigrants who were fleeing their home countries to escape poverty and violence. Many of the players on the team are considered to be under special immigrant juvenile status and do not have the support of one or both parents in the United States.
"It is a drawn-out experience for them," said Davis. "Ultimately the hope is that they will be able to get a green card which will give them some sense of security and permanency in the country."
The young players met a pope who has put the issue of immigration and refugees high on his agenda. On Thursday, the Pope addressed a joint session of Congress and asked lawmakers to see the "faces" of immigrants, and he also addressed the plight of refugees and immigrants in the United Nations.
The Pope concluded his U.S. visit in Philadelphia, where he addressed a crowd of thousands on the steps of Independence Hall. Here, Pope Francis encouraged Latinos not to get discouraged by hardships and to be proud of their heritage.
Being that Pope Francis was born in Argentina, the players were excited to meet the first Pope from Latin America. Unexpected opportunities like this one and playing soccer every weekend allows the young players to not worry about their status in the U.S. and keeps them optimistic for the future.
"Soccer is my passion," said Mejía while getting ready for his next game. "I like New York, it is very good. I ultimately want to become a professional soccer player."
As the players look ahead to the future, meeting the first Latino Pope will be a cherished memory, and a powerful inspiration as they forge ahead.