At Boise’s South Junior High School, the whole school reads every day. Anything they want, for 15 minutes. And that’s where it all began.
Refugees from Iraq, Sajjad Al Swaiedi and Yousif Fartoos, then both eighth-graders, lived and breathed soccer. They would pester South librarian Mary Karol Taylor for books about anything soccer.
Did she have books on certain international players? (Like Barcelona’s Messi, for Sajjad.) Or this team and that team? It’s one sport she can talk about a little because her son has played since he was old enough. Through him, she knew some of the players, which was enough to keep the conversation rolling.
Taylor also talked to the boys’ teachers about their soccer obsession.
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“(Their teachers) said, ‘Oh, every assignment they just try to twist the assignment to be in some way about soccer.’ Every essay, they build it into something about soccer. Poems — how many poems can you write about soccer? Apparently a lot. ”
When last spring rolled around, Taylor’s son was excited about the season, so she asked the boys if they were excited to start practice, too.
“As it came out of my mouth, I was wishing I could take it back. … Their response was, ‘Yeah, no. We’re not on a team.’ ”
At the time, South offered a once-a-week, after-school soccer club, but that’s not what Taylor had in mind. These kids were obsessed with soccer — and they weren’t on a team.
“I started saying to some of their teachers, ‘Let’s get them on a team.’ ”
It wasn’t just Sajjad and Yousif; there was a whole group of refugee kids looking for soccer books.
“I said something about, ‘Do you wish you could be on a team? Do you want to be on a team?’ They said, ‘We would love to be on a team. Like a real team? We would love to be on a real team.’ ”
“So I said, ‘I’m going to make this happen.’ Like, how hard could it be?’”
• • •
Sajjad grew up in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq. He was 12 years old when his family left Iraq in 2013. His father worked with Americans and wanted a safer and better life for his family.
In Iraq, Sajjad played soccer in the dirt field behind the mosque.
“We had a ball; it was always flat. The goals were like big rocks on two sides. We just played.”
Arriving in Boise, Sajjad knew a little English: cat, dog, car. Immersion into American life was difficult. For about a year, he rarely left his home. He met Yousif and Justin Karangwa in seventh grade at the Hillside Language Academy, and they became friends.
Sajjad’s second year in Boise was different; by now he spoke English. At South Junior High, he met teachers like Taylor and the idea of starting a team became real.
“(Mrs. Taylor) called me and said, ‘Your job is to get players.’ I said, ‘Yousif, help me.’ He was one of the people (I wanted on the team). ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘this team is not going to happen.’
“I just looked at him (and said) don’t be negative. He said, ‘Just trust me. It’s not going to happen.’ I said, ‘One day, I’ll just remind you of what you say.’”
• • •
Organizing a team was harder than it looked. It’s a big deal, requiring a great deal of parental involvement, time, money and commitment — and usually a volunteer parent as coach.
This team of refugee students had none of that support. Families have no extra money for fees; working (frequently at jobs that required night work) was a priority for parents. Often a family would have only one car — and it wasn’t going to be used for taking kids to and from practice and games. Language was a barrier, and the culture of parents-on-the-sidelines was neither a priority nor on the radar. It couldn’t be, by definition.
“I guess I got really motivated because these kids love soccer so much. I have seen how my son has benefited since he was 5 years old, being part of the soccer community — friendships that he’s built, the character he’s built by being on team sports. He’s just gotten so much out of soccer,” Taylor said. “I just thought it was sad for (these kids) not to have that kind of experience.”
What all of the refugee kids played was street soccer. Survival of the fittest, getting and keeping the ball, scoring as many goals as you can. When now ninth-grader Sajjad tried out for the Borah soccer team last fall, for instance, (prior to playing the season with Nations United) he didn’t make it — not because he wasn’t skilled, but because he didn’t know how to play a position and play with a team. These are all things that most American youth club soccer players learn from day one.
It wasn’t so much that South didn’t have an organized team, but if these students didn’t learn about positions and teamwork, they would never be able to play on high school teams either. Taylor’s idea was far-reaching.
She approached Idaho Rush Soccer Club, a large Treasure Valley soccer organization that has a history of helping refugee kids.
Rush helped with scholarships for the entire team, but Taylor still had to raise $4,600. A grant from Dick’s Sporting Goods cut that in half, and through crowdfunding on a teacher site — with solicits to everyone on Taylor’s email list, friends in the soccer community, teachers, a Facebook posting — the team was funded.
In less than 24 hours. Uniforms, registration fees and a coach — all paid.
• • •
Coach Fawad Saheb-Khan is himself a refugee, born in Kunduz, Afghanistan. His father moved the family to Pakistan, seeking a better life in Russia, but it didn’t work out. His father was killed when he went back to Afghanistan to visit — Saheb-Khan was very young — and his mother qualified as a refugee.
Adjusting to American life in Boise was difficult. And just like Sajjad, Saheb-Khan had always played soccer on the streets with no gear and no rules, but a tutor introduced him to American soccer. Saheb-Khan started in Rush’s select level but had the skills to move up to a traveling competitive team. All that helped him, both socially and linguistically.
“Making more friends, getting to know more people. That was the cool thing. Just learning the language a little faster. Getting out, speaking with people, even if you don’t speak it. That kind of helped.”
Saheb-Khan made the Timberline soccer team as well, and after graduation, he went to the College of Western Idaho for a year. He also got his license to coach in Idaho. He was an assistant coach with a U-13 boys team when the CEO of Idaho Rush Soccer Club, Lee Riley, told him about this fledgling team being started and asked if he’d like to be the head coach. He said yes.
• • •
The team practiced all summer long; that is, anybody who hoped to be on the team. At one point, there were 30 kids on the list. Taylor was eager to see which kids would actually commit to the team, and by the end of the summer, the team looked vastly different than it did on the first day of practice.
“One of the things I’ve seen is just (their) understanding, that responsibility of what it means to be on a team and not letting your team down. And our coach is expecting you to show up. You can’t just not come. That’s one huge thing,” Taylor said.
Coach worked the kids hard, and it should be noted that Saheb-Khan wasn’t paid for summer coaching. He held a weeklong conditioning camp, had them run a mile in the hot sun, do drill after drill after drill. He coached during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that includes fasting from dawn till sunset.
Sajjad: “I was fasting one of the months, but I still showed up. Coach was fasting, and he still showed up and did OK. If he shows up, why can’t I?”
But the most momentous lesson that summer of 2016, far and away what made the most lasting impression on the kids, was playing positions.
Sajjad: “I didn’t know that in the beginning. I just had skills, nothing more than that. ...
“We became more of a team instead of individuals. That’s how we work.”
Playing positions was like a key that unlocked a treasure. And so, one Saturday last September, the kids piled into a van — another arrangement Taylor made, this time with Boise City Parks and Recreation — and headed out to put it to the test.
• • •
The scene — and it is just that, a scene — at Simplot Fields in Southeast Boise is a pretty familiar one for soccer players across the Treasure Valley. On any given Saturday, thousands of uniformed players are scattered across nearly two dozen grass fields of play.
At Field 20 for the first game of the season, however, there was no such feeling of comfort and familiarity. Most of the players from Team Nations United had never been to Simplot Fields before.
For these kids — from Iraq, Congo, Thailand, Somalia — this was their debut. Their debut as a team and their debut as soccer players, American style. In fact, for most of them, this was their first game — ever — played on a field with grass. And stripes. With uniforms. With referees, against a team of strangers.
The teams couldn’t have been much different. The Boise High team that Nations United faced was experienced, confident and, by all accounts, really good. Nations United was nervous, tentatively confident and unknown.
But when both teams took the field, there was only one language: soccer.
And when the referee blew the whistle to start the match, that sound delineated the moment as “before” and “after.” Before, Nations United was just an idea that didn’t exist. Before, the notion of a team was merely a pie-in-the-sky dream by some soccer-obsessed kids and a good-hearted teacher. Before, the kids merely chased the ball around and called it soccer.
Sajjad: “Now we know how to play like professional. We’re like real soccer players.”
And he also remembered his promise.
“I just gave it to him: ‘Yousif, remember those three months ago? Remember what you said?’ He said, ‘Ah, yeah.’ (I said) like — it happened. I told you it was going to happen and it happened. … Just being positive makes it easy.”
Their first game actually ended in a tie, 1-1. But it was as good as a win.
Sajjad: “(Coach said) we look like a real team. We all know our positions. ...
“My first real game. It was better than I expected.”
• • •
The season progressed. After the tie with Boise, Nations United beat Arsenal and Timberline; played Boise High again and lost by one point. Then, on one double-header Saturday, missing three key players and some girls (which limited the possibilities for substitutions), Nations United lost 0-4 to Boise High. It was a bitter loss.
Between games, they went to the Whitney Community Center for lunch.
Taylor: “EhPaw wouldn’t get out of the van — she played defender. She was so upset and crying, felt so awful and that she had let the team down.
“Eh Doh (the goalie) — the same thing. He just sat down … in my car. … He just pulled his jersey over his face and just sobbed. Just had to let it out.”
After a miserable lunch, Sajjad gathered the players together.
“Our goalkeeper got humiliated the most because they score on him. He feels really bad, started crying. I had to do my best to get him back up. Not just me — the whole team was trying their best to get him back up. Like it’s not your fault, we should have helped you.
“I say to them, ‘It’s not your fault we lost,’” Sajjad said. “We are a team.
“We lose as a team and win as a team. It’s not one individual problem.”
They gathered around the pool table and everybody put their hands in for Nations United. They got on the bus and went back to the field.
“The next game, (the goalie) saved really hard shots. The defenders were really protecting him, trying their best not to get any score on it. We tied that game and coach said, ‘See?’ That’s the way we should have played in the beginning.”
• • •
If you ask the kids what they learned over the course of Nations United’s season, there is a consistent refrain: “I learned to play position.” But with an adult-size perspective, clearly they’ve learned more. Much more.
South English Language Learning teacher Nancy Henderson: “They all take pride in what they’re doing — but they take pride in other people as well. And to see them at school, you just see the confidence. You see them take ownership of their learning; you see them know that they’re as good as any of the kids there.”
Taylor: “I just believe so strongly that when kids feel connected to something, they do better in school.
“Hopefully, too, there’s some transference: When they work hard, it pays off. And when there’s a failure, you don’t just quit, you keep working. … Try harder, do better, have more grit, stick with things.”
And there’s a lot of people pulling for them.
Taylor: “If we are not embracing them in our community, it’s our loss.”
Besides the support of Rush, teachers at South passed around a sign-up sheet and provided lunch between double-headers. When Henderson wrote to her son — a goalie on an adult team in the Bay area — that Nations United’s goalie didn’t have any gloves, he sent a pair. And then he sent a pair of pants. And a goalie jersey as well. “That’s kind of what you’re supposed to do,” she says.
Henderson: “What it’s going to do for a lot of them is (give them) the sense that they can accomplish things, that America really is the land to be in; that there is a future, that there are possibilities here.
“And that they can be treated as an equal. I think that’s really important for these kids to understand: That they really are going to become a (part of the) fabric, a part of American culture.”
Forward Hamsa Jama: “I am feeling American. Before (I felt like) a refugee still. Now we’re not.”
One day not long after their first game, Sajjad and Yousif wandered into a teacher’s classroom. It took a while for them to come to the point, but what they were shyly hoping was that they could get copies of the photos she had taken at the game.
Taylor: “Well, come to find out — now that my son has connected with them on social media — they all have pictures of them in their Rush jerseys on their profile pictures. ... Their main Facebook photo is of the team. ...
“It’s giving them an identity. An identity and something to belong to. ...
“Rush Soccer Club is huge. You’ve been out there, seen all the kids wearing Rush jerseys.
“And now they are, too.”
• • •
Nations United ended their season 5-3, with their share of victories and losses. The championship tournament was over the course of three days. They won one game, tied one game and on Friday night, they lost to rival Boise High 0-4.
However, they still had the second-best U-16 co-ed record, so Saturday’s game was a re-match: No. 1 Boise High vs. No. 2 Nations United.
Sajjad: “Coach just like, believe in me, believe. Believe in yourself. We got this again.”
For a tense first half, no one scored, although there were plenty of attempts. Both teams were determined and skilled and disciplined. Nations United had several shots on goal, but they were too far out. And then, midway into the second half, Hamsa Jama followed coach’s instructions: He got closer to the goal — and scored. The final minutes were agonizing, with Coach Fawad orchestrating defensive strategies that players executed on the field. That positions thing.
When the whistle blew, players on the field ran to the bench and the bench stormed the field, cheering worthy of a World Cup victory. Nations United were champions.
Sajjad: “This is more important to me than the World Cup.”
Everyone hugged and jumped and screamed. Sajjed ripped off his shirt. Tears were shed.
Coach Fawad Saheb-Khan: “The team has come a long way for being first-time, playing in any team. I didn’t win a championship on my first-ever team playing.”
He laughs now, but he struggled to hold back tears then.
“I was emotional actually. I’m kind of tough, trying to tough it up, not to show it. (But) the reason I was emotional was because everything that they win, through each and every game, I was there to see them.”
• • •
Basketball starts soon, and then track in the spring.
Spring soccer starts, too. And then there’s the fall season, when many of the older kids will try out for high school soccer teams. It will be bittersweet to leave Nations United, but there’s also a sense of urgency.
Sajjad: “To be able to get a college scholarship or professional team scholarship, they come and see you at a high school game or practice and they see how good you do. That’s how they take professional players. So I have to get on a high school team.”
Because it is clear to each of the members of Nations United: Sports is a way to college. Sports offers the opportunity for scholarships to pay for tuition that none of their families can afford.
Sajjad: “I came here to really get a better education. A better life and an education. In order to become a better person, you have to get to the college. …”
Through Nations United, the door to many opportunities might be opening. These kids have done more than play soccer, they’ve excelled. And possibly, it’s not just soccer that they’ve excelled at. Or that they will excel at.
Taylor: “Maybe Sajjad won’t become a pro soccer player, but hopefully … he became empowered. He experienced that with perseverance, you can make something happen in your life.”
Only time will tell how a search for soccer books and a persistent librarian will have changed the course of individual lives — and perhaps of the world. Sajjad imagines how this soccer season will look to him 20 years from now.
“It’s going to play a big part. It’s going to become a story — how I once came into the library, asked for books; that teacher, she tried her best. I’m really thankful to her. Right now, I’m really thankful she got me on a team. …
“It’s going to become something big, a big part of my life. ...
“In 20 years, I don’t know where I’ll get, we’ll see. But it started here. It all started here.”
WANT TO HELP?
If you’d like to make soccer available to more refugee kids, send tax-deductible contributions to Idaho Rush, 270 S. Orchard St., Boise ID 83705. In the memo line, write “Nations United.”
If you’d like to volunteer with Nations United, contact Mary Karol Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.