What I Learned Playing Soccer With Hundreds of Afghan Kids

What I Learned Playing Soccer With Hundreds of Afghan Kids

Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico

December 28, 2021 ~ January 7, 2022

I was heartbroken, and a little in shock. Despite two negative at-home COVID tests two days earlier, the military nurse quickly and discreetly shuffled me into a wooden isolation room, more like a box, in the makeshift COVID testing tent in the village where thousands of our Afghan allies, or guests, had been living for months. She told me what I already feared, “You’re positive,” and immediately handed me a medical-grade N9502+ Mask and told me to put it on. I felt like I could almost hear her say, “That cute little cloth Refugee Soccer mask isn’t going to cut it, buddy.”

It’s 9AM Thursday, January 6th, 2022 and the second set of soccer clinics was about to start on the big soccer field on base. I was now sure I would have to miss it all. Like the week before, this is the day the kids and volunteers absolutely loved. We had all the room in the world to play freely on a regulation soccer field used regularly by service members stationed here. One of the small but significant perks of this day was that the kids got to ride the military bus for about 15 minutes one-way to get to the field. The chance to leave the village to which they were confined for months while awaiting permanent placement into one of the dozens of potential new cities they would soon call “home” was an unexpected source of smiles and laughter.

As a small part of Operation Allies Welcome, our whole venture, which included event cancellations, two marathon driving sprints, now a positive COVID case (me!), and some of the best damn hustle and hacking ever, all started as an effort to help evacuated Afghan children relocated to America use soccer to decompress and prepare for their new lives here.

The chance to help welcome to America newly-arrived fellow humans from whatever extreme difficulties and life-threatening circumstances they are fleeing is a privilege and an honor that I do not take lightly. We may be playing a game, a sport, to connect with and help these kids, but the stakes are simply too high to give nothing but our best.

After more than three months of planning and coordinating our program for these guests at Holloman and eventually obtaining approval to be on the base we were told we would have a service timeframe of late December 2021 through April 2022. Then, suddenly, in mid-December the military informed us that they had unexpectedly accelerated its plans to place the approximately 3,000 families into their new homes around America which means the village would be dismantled by January-end. Our 3+ month timeframe quickly became a 3 week window to have 30 volunteers on-site in Alamogordo with background checks cleared and ready to work with these kids. And all of this in the middle of a holiday season marked by volatile winter weather and a huge surge in COVID cases.

I cannot say enough good things about the entire group of volunteers who stepped up so brilliantly and willingly to make this happen for these hundreds of kids. Huge amounts of flexibility, love, and energy embodied in these big-hearted people made this possible. Due to the accelerated dismantling of the village by the military, exacerbated by the spike in COVID cases, I was informed literally on my second, and now final, road trip to Alamogordo that the third week of clinics was being canceled. This was a sharp blow to have to take and then to deliver to 1/2 of our volunteers, all of these based in Utah, many with non-refundable airfare and hearts full of excitement. I am extremely grateful for these volunteers and the many unseen people supporting them. (We will be making up for that disappointment in Q1 with similar clinics working with local refugees here in Utah.)

Speaking of road trips, as a testament to the challenges of this project, both 1,700+ mile round trip journeys were unplanned. Yeah, unplanned. The first trip became necessary on-the-fly when my flight on December 28th was delayed so much that I would have missed my connection from Denver to El Paso, TX (the closest major airport to the Base. Check a map, it’s odd but true). This would mean that I wouldn’t get to the Base until AFTER the clinics scheduled for our first day were already over. So, I am literally in my Uber headed to SLC Airport to catch my flight when I get the flight delay notice on my phone and am forced to do some quick, painful math: “It’s 5PM now, Apple Maps says 13.5 hours to drive to the Base puts me in around 6:30AM the next day. That’s a 4-hour cushion for sleep, snow, or whatever to make the 10:30 meeting time with the volunteers. I got this!” So, I rent a car at the airport, throw in my bags, swing by my apartment to grab three Costco totes full of shoes (was going to take them the next week), snow boots for any snow-related road trouble, and a pillow and blanket for naps. 17.5 hours later (most of the roads were snow-covered so that was fun!) I pulled up to the Base with 8 minutes to spare. Driving on pure adrenaline, water, and a “this-has-to-work” mentality caused this positive outcome.

And it was SO worth it! I am happy to report that we served over 300 Afghan children through soccer. We had 30+ volunteers register to come play with these kids at their own expense and on their own time away from school and work. We worked closely with two incredible partners, LA Roca FC and Starbucks, to collect and distribute around 400 pairs of shoes to the Afghan kids and their families. We also passed out 500 special welcome notes and friendship bracelets made by dozens of Utah-based young women soccer players from Cottonwood FC who spent many beautiful hours lovingly making these young Afghans feel like they belong in their new home here in America. (See our Instagram post here.)

Just a few of the hundreds of donated shoes awaiting Afghan kids on the Base.

After returning to Salt Lake City at 4AM on January 1, 2022, I went off the grid to recover and recharge before the next scheduled visit for January 5th. Apparently, COVID was lurking and reared its ugly head on the evening of Monday the 3rd. A negative test that evening and the next day indicated I could still safely go but I was definitely not feeling well. I was relieved that I was going to be flying to Alamogordo this time because that last thing any sane person wants to do is repeat a 30-hour roundtrip journey just days after the first one, especially with COVID-like symptoms.

But then I was reminded that we had what turned out to be hundreds of donated shoes that not only needed to be picked-up but also needed to be delivered to these kids. So, what to do? No choice but to rally and make it happen. So, that’s what I did. With the support of the loveliest angel who loaned me her car, and promptly helped me load it to capacity, like full!, with these shoes, I was set to go. No room or time for a blanket or pillow this time. On January 5th the epic, and super painful, roadtrip #2 got underway. Mercifully, this was the last trip and also the one vital to finishing this project successfully.

“I’m not letting COVID stop the smiles on the faces of these Afghan kids playing in your soccer clinic.” Task Force Holloman CDC Rep

Then comes January 6th, the moment of the bad news of my positive COVID test. I had just driven 14 hours the day earlier and arrived around midnight with the car as full as it could be with hundreds of shoes for these kids and their families. The nurse told me I should call my contact on base, Marc Bevis, and tell him what had happened and discuss a plan to get me off base and quarantined ASAP. Marc and I chatted about what to do and worked on a plan to safely get these shoes, which I was NOT taking back with me to Utah, onto the feet of these kids.

My phone rang mid-call with Marc and it was the CDC rep for the Task Force. I already knew her because she’s also a DC-based soccer coach and mom of two daughters. She had already been a huge help the week earlier organizing the Afghan girls and playing with them in our clinic. She said there was no need to cancel the event and that so long as I wore my mask and stayed far away from the guests I would be allowed to observe the day’s events and do any troubleshooting from a distance. And her comment “I’m not letting COVID stop the smiles on the faces of these Afghan kids playing in your soccer clinic,” turned a really sucky day into a day of hope and resilience. Honestly, to me this simple comment but significant stance instantly became a symbol of the merit and spirit of this project.

That day, and the next day, went off without a hitch and we were able to accomplish our mission of “creating moments of hope and happiness through soccer around the world.”

So, what did you learn, Adam? Anything good?

Yep! Thanks for asking. As I always do in these projects, I learned and saw lots of really cool things. In fact, these learnings of the heart and soul are one of the key reasons I do this work. Here are the key lessons that affected me this time and I hope will likely affect you:

Hours after my positive COVID test safely away from the Afghan kids but happily watching the day unfold beautifully and impactfully.

When we help people who have gone through really hard things we should expect to have to do hard things ourselves.

Many things in this project did NOT go as planned. They, ahem, rarely seem to in this work. And that’s totally OK! Who am I to expect things to be easy or go as planned?! I know with 100% certainty that things have rarely gone as planned, or hoped, for the thousands of people we work with in our efforts. These hundreds of kids in Alamogordo, and the tens of millions of families and children around the world forced from their homes with nothing but the will to live to see another day, didn’t plan to be living a life outside of the relative comfort and familiarity of their homeland; thousands of miles away from people, food, and culture that make up their known world. Refugees don’t sign-up to become refugees. They would rather be home speaking and being understood in their own language. Eating food that sits well with them. Living lives that they did plan.

But these thousands of Afghan allies are here. The millions of refugees worldwide are in thousands of refugee camps around the world. And I will be damned if the hard things that my team and I have to endure in reaching them prevent the creation of smiles and hope wherever remotely possible. At several times on my mindless, painful road trips to New Mexico as I was trying to dismiss the onset of badly-needed sleep, deepening fatigue, and growing stress, I kept seeing the faces of these kids and pondering what they had gone through before I met them. Fleeing their homeland. Temporarily finding refuge on a military base under the watchful care of gun-toting service members. Awaiting placement to a permanent home in one of hundreds of possibilities across the vast country that is the USA. Uncertainty, trauma, and stress I could simply not imagine.

Bottom line: nothing that I go through in leading this effort to help thousands of my fellow humans compares to what they have gone through to get on our radar for help and, therefore, I won’t be surprised or, worse, complain about the myriad uncomfortable things that may come our way in advancing this work. Not COVID. Not delays and cancellations. Not weather. Not financial scarcity. Not negativity.

Bring on the hard things! For these are the things that deepen the value of the work we do and touch the lives of all who work with with us, both beneficiaries and supporters alike.

True impact occurs person-to-person and that connection makes a difference.

In my nearly 60 hours on the road over 10 days in the American Southwest, the vastness of this world hit me deeply. The seemingly never-ending flow of problems, crises, and suffering made the loneliness I felt all by myself on a remote highway or two with no cell service feel nearly overwhelming and stark. But it was in these moments that I realized that the antidote to feeling overwhelmed by the massive amounts of work to do, and the millions we aim to help lies in this one simple and very real truth:

True impact is measured one beautiful smile and heart at a time.

Just one. I can do one. You can do one. And these “ones” eventually add up to dozens, and then hundreds, and sets us on the path to helping millions of “someones.” This is the lesson and I will endeavor to remind me and you of this simple powerful truth as we move forward one human in need at a time.

As humans on Planet Earth our similarities shine through brightly and bind us when a soccer ball is involved.

40 years later I still love and think fondly of the boys with whom I played soccer in California, the Walnut Creek Rockets. Belonging to a team, a soccer “family” in this case, is powerful and long-lasting. This game, the beautiful game, binds us together. And as the undisputed “World’s Sport,” soccer/football/futbol is the great equalizer and connector of people.

One of the local coaches so instrumental to pulling this event off in Alamogordo, Eric Hoppes, said to me in the first week something so poignant: “I have always known that beneath our external obvious differences we are the same humans, but seeing this bonding between these Afghan and mainstream kids through soccer this week has driven that point home more clearly and deeply than ever before.”

THIS sentiment, this learning made it all worthwhile to me. To see this coach, this kind fellow human, realize this valuable, life-changing truth right before my eyes touched me deeply and topped off my heart with even more passion to keep this work going.

With these lessons deeply tucked into my heart, these experiences dancing on my soul, and these precious faces swirling in my mind, I am now ready for the next event, the next journey. And, guess what? There are some truly breakthrough and exciting things in the works as I write this and I can’t wait to share!

Stay tuned here and on Instagram because these lessons are scalable, timely, and so vital to millions of our fellow humans. Let’s go!

Adam Miles, Founder

Approved Video of the Events

Due to understandable and ongoing security concerns for these Afghan guests and their families back in Afghanistan, video and photos were carefully taken by authorized military personnel. We are grateful for the cooperation, talents, and generosity afforded us by the Air Force to capture these events. Original source here.