OAKLAND -- All they want is some grass to play soccer on, something more forgiving than the hard asphalt parking lot they use now.
And when the newly arrived immigrants and refugees at Oakland International High School look at the huge expanse of fenced-off grass behind their school used exclusively by the Oakland Technical High School baseball team, they can't help but wonder, why can't we use that?
Seizing the situation as an opportunity to learn about democracy, politics and bureaucracy, and backed by Principal Carmelita Reyes, students at the school have started lobbying the school district for their own field. They have created a website and video, http://www.oihsfield.org, and started a petition on Change.org. They also plan to address the school board.
The students from Yemen, Afghanistan, Colombia and other far flung places understand that 60 soccer players in cleats will destroy a baseball outfield and that baseball player parents paid for the field out of their own pockets.
But it also doesn't seem fair that they have to play on asphalt while baseball players from another school get to use their school grounds, almost exclusively, for their own sport.
"It feels like we don't belong here, like it's not our school," said Omar Benitez, who came from Colombia and who plays on the Soccer Without Borders Team in a parking lot at the school. "Everybody at the school wants a soccer field. I've seen my friends get hurt here. It's really sad."
The baseball field on their school grounds was built in 2008 by civic-minded parents who saw an abandoned field at a closed school that was perfect for a baseball field for Oakland Tech. They got approval to do it with their own money, $400,000 of it, and made it happen. They created a nonprofit called Field of Dreams and now raise $10,000 to $15,000 a year to maintain the field.
But at the same time the field opened, the school district decided to reopen the school site for newly arrived immigrants and refugees.
Since Oakland International opened, the soccer team at the school has been able to use the baseball field when the baseball team was not using it. But growing tensions this year over damage to the grass relegated them to an asphalt parking lot at the school.
"Because the Oakland International students look out the window and see that field every day, they feel it's theirs, which is not the case," said Oakland Tech varsity baseball coach Bryan Bassette. "It seems very opportunistic on their end to wait for it to be built and then stake a claim to it."
Bassette said the soccer program at Oakland International High caused about $20,000 worth of damage this fall. They had nothing to offer to pay for the damage and did not offer to help during volunteer work days.
But Ben Gucciardi, Oakland program director for Soccer without Borders, who runs the soccer program at Oakland International High school with 60 boys and 20 girls, sees the situation differently.
"We respect what the fathers of the baseball players did for their kids, they did something great, but they are only doing it for their kids," Gucciardi said. "You look on one side of the fence and it's all baseball players and you look on the other and its newcomer students on blacktop."
Why have things gotten so bad between the two groups? Part of it has to do with the fact that the school district allowed a quasi-private organization to build on school property, to the exclusion of others.
"We're also just tired of being treated badly," Gucciardi said. "We've thought we had permission to play on the field, then all of a sudden we have baseball coaches yelling at us. It's a group of Oakland Tech baseball parents that run it, but it shouldn't be to the exclusion of Oakland International."
Philip Williams, president of Oakland Field of Dreams, said the situation has gotten worse this year because the baseball infield had to be fixed, and that meant not using it for a while.
Both sides have been waiting for the school district to step in with some money or either put in artificial turf on the baseball field so both sides can use it or put in turf on the asphalt the soccer players now use, or both.
"We have an under-resourced school district, and those folks at Oakland International have been impacted and they have been irritated, and I don't think it's baseball's fault," Williams said. "They have been using the field and damaging it, and the field has been fixed by volunteers from Oakland Tech."
School district spokesman Troy Flint said the district is considering a plan to install artificial turf on the baseball outfield and on the parking lot where the soccer program now practices, so the soccer team can use both spaces. Cost should not be an issue, he said, but added that the plan is not a done deal.
"There is some sensitivity to the needs of those who made contributions to baseball," Flint said. "We really appreciate those contributions, but we want to benefit the greatest number of students possible. Right now we have a baseball-only facility. We want to find a way that benefits multiple schools and multiple sports."
In the meantime, Reyes can't help but empathize with her students.
"When the field was being built I did say 'Hey, it doesn't make sense to build a baseball field in the back of our school. Can we build a multiple-use field?'" she said. "But because it was baseball parents doing it, it became baseball. We need a space at our school, so therein lies the conundrum."
Reyes said she has heard about the district's tentative plan to put in artificial turf, but she's not going to be convinced until it happens.
"I'm encouraged," Reyes said. "This is good, but it's not done until I see the bulldozers out there."
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley