Vermonters Making A Difference

Iri Sunij, South Burlington – immigrant, nurse, youth soccer coach

Second in the Vermonters Making A Difference series of interviews by Dr. Louis Meyers, a Rutland area physician and 2022 candidate for Congress.

Where were you born?

“I was born and raised in Bosnia.”

Iri Sunij is a Bosnia native who works professionally as a nurse at Middlebury College. He runs a soccer program for young kids in Winooski, which includes citizen-building activities for the mostly immigrant kids on the team.

Coach Sunij

Did the fighting and warfare affect your community?

“We lived in a valley, and there was shelling. One day my friends and I were playing soccer and a missile flew right over our heads and exploded nearby..  But soccer helped protect my psyche.”

You and your family emigrated to Germany. What was that like?

“Germany gave us hope and education.  And I was able to play for a soccer club.”

In 1999, when you were 18 years old, your family brought you to the United States, through the resettlement program. What were your first impressions?

“I had just left all of my friends. It was difficult, but refugees have resiliency. They have to find a way to fight on.”

Did you continue to play soccer in the U.S.?

“I played in a semi-professional league and an elite indoor league in Montreal. I was hoping to play professionally, but I broke my leg and ankle, and that ended my playing career.”

What is your profession now?

“I went to nursing school and am working in the UVM Health system as a registered nurse. If everyone could live to be 200, I would require that at some point they studied nursing. It helps you grow as a human being.”

You have continued your involvement with soccer, as a coach and leader of an organization called the Vermont Patriot Team. Tell us about this.

“TheVermont Patriots is a community soccer team for kids from age 4-14. We have up to 140 kids on our teams. It is based in Winooski and many of the players are refugees. We charge families only $20 per year and rely on fundraising to pay our expenses.

The mission is to embrace these kids and give them something to hope for. It introduces the kids to organized sports, but also focuses on life lessons – some as simple as brushing their teeth regularly. The older kids help the younger ones.  

It is like a Cinderella team. When some of the kids first join, they cannot even look you in the eye.  We work on changing that. Our pre-game cheer is: Vermont Patriots Family!”

We also work very hard to involve the parents, and encourage their participation and presence.

What are some of the biggest challenges for you?

Well, on a personal level, it is simply finding the time, since I already have a full-time job as a nurse, and at home have my wife and three young sons. But they are supportive of this project, and my sons are also on the team.  Transportation is difficult for many of the kids, and we try and make sure we can get them to practice and the games. And finding a decent soccer field has been very hard – our current field is more dirt than grass.

How can people contribute?

They can visit our website: and there they will learn more about us and find opportunities to donate money and/ or time.  Any help is appreciated.