Our founder, Adam Miles, was honored to give the talk below at TEDx Salt Lake City 2022.
June 20, 2022 (World Refugee Day)
I recently had the unique honor of representing Refugee Soccer by speaking at the 2022 TEDx Salt Lake City event. It was life-changing for me personally but my greatest hope is that these words, coupled with inspired action, will change many more lives, including yours, as we advance our work with refugees forward faster and more boldly.
I am delighted to share the text of my talk below. (Video will be available in August 2022.) Please note that this is copyrighted material but I invite you to share this message with friends, family, co-workers, and your community. And when you do will you please be sure to credit or mention Refugee Soccer and me?
If you are touched or moved in any way, will you also consider joining our movement as a fan, volunteer, or donor? See link here to check out the many ways you can help us create more belonging and better lives for all of us.
Building Communities of Belonging Through Soccer
It’s a crisp, sunny December morning somewhere on an Air Force Base in the American Southwest. I’m on faded AstroTurf surrounded by strangers. The air is quiet. They are…staring at me. For a second, I stare back. Not one of them speaks English. And it’s my job right now, to tell these 40 Afghan kids that they are welcomed, loved, supported, capable, strong, important. I take a big breath, SMILE…and say nothing.
Instead, I toss a soccer ball in the air and happily watch as the kick-off of connection happens instantly before my eyes.
Sport is a universally relatable part of life but soccer, the beautiful game, uniquely functions as a universal language. This is something I’ve observed through years of running the nonprofit I founded, Refugee Soccer. Our mission is to use soccer to create many more moments of hope and happiness around the world just like this one.
Contrast that with the historically-high numbers of displaced people, or refugees, in the world today. More than 100million of our fellow humans have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution, and general chaos that has at least disrupted if not forever changed their lives. Their homelands became too hostile to stay and they were forced to find refuge in other countries, often involving dangerous, brutal journeys that, tragically, not everyone survives.
For almost 50 years the USA, home of the largest resettlement program in the world, has welcomed more than 3 million refugees, roughly the same number of people living here in Utah.
One of these refugees now lives safely not far from here. His name is Tamim. He is really, really good at soccer. In 2021, Tamim and his family were on the very last US military plane out of Kabul as the country fell to the Taliban. He experienced the unimaginable panic that gripped his homeland the day they fled for their lives. Tamim’s story is as moving and inspirational, as it is raw and tragic.
That day, at one of the last open gates at the Kabul Airport, heavily-guarded of course, a stampede of thousands of desperate Afghans broke out as they tried to get through the gate just hoping to board a plane to safety.
In the stampede Tamim was knocked to the ground and separated from his mother. He heard her screaming and willed himself up to find her. As he made his way to her, he passed over children killed in the chaos. He reached his mother, regrouped, and made the final short but crucial distance to safety. This chilling moment painfully captures the all-too-common risks borne and tragedies experienced everyday all around the world by newly-created refugees.
With staggering numbers and harrowing stories like this it can feel overwhelming to want to help but not know how to help. The world may be more technologically connected than ever before but the borders are wider, the walls higher, and the resulting sense of exclusion deeper. But once a refugee has found safety, shelter, and food the next most vital need they have as a human is to belong. Isn’t that what we all want at our core, to find refuge from trauma and pain; to just belong?!
This is where soccer comes into play. With so many fans around the world soccer is considered the world’s sport. The accessibility of the game, all you need is something resembling a ball and a pile of rocks or old tires to mark the goals, is, to me, what makes soccer so beautiful. Because access to the game by so many powerfully binds diverse people together. Teams form, relationships grow, and healing becomes possible.
And the sheer size of soccer’s global fan base means there are virtually limitless possibilities for real human connection. This excites me because it makes the huge number of refugees seem less overwhelming and the complicated problem of exclusion more addressable.
For years my work with Refugee Soccer has provided valuable insights when it comes to forming teams among people with diverse backgrounds and life stories. I’d like to share with you one radical idea: words matter but communication matters more.
We live in a world where it often seems like we are drowning in a sea of too many words while the value of communication continues to sink. It’s as though we are spraying toxic and polarizing language everywhere, which only deepens the divide between us.
What if using fewer words could improve our communication and create more belonging and understanding for all of us? It can! And you don’t even have to love soccer to try this in your life. In fact, this idea is as simple and universal as the game itself; a game that demands teamwork and communication to perform well.
A study published a decade ago by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, both surprised and motivated me with its relevance to this idea around communication and the work we do with teams. The implications for hacking belonging in the context of the growing refugee crisis are really compelling.
Researchers who did the study observed that the answer to what makes a team’s communication most effective lies not in what is said but in how it is said. And the primary takeaway of the study? That “the most important predictor of a team’s success is its communication patterns.”
According to this study, there are three elements of communication that most impact team performance:
Belonging, the glue that binds communities big and small, is created through personal interactions. This direct human connection is naturally created on the soccer field. But off the field, where most of us find ourselves every day, we can apply this reframing of communication to our families, co-workers, and neighbors by focusing on our energy, engagement, and exploration.
On the soccer field this exchange of energy may be a gesture clearly meaning “Pass the ball; I’m open!” Actually getting the pass and thanking the teammate for it with a thumbs-up or smile builds trust. Importantly, this brief wordless exchange energizes the entire team who see the benefit of passing.
Off the field a pass could be simply smiling at someone in your community who doesn’t look like you. It takes a split second to connect in this way. And how good does it feel when that pass of positive energy is received with a reciprocal smile, and better yet, then is passed on to someone else?!
On any team, one member’s individual skills contribute to the team’s overall performance. Of course, there is solo dribbling in soccer, and sometimes it’s remarkable to watch, but it’s the passing, or engagement, that makes or breaks a team. This is because with crisp, effective passing the team can move farther down the field faster towards the goal.
And, while usually not often enough for American crowds, when a goal actually results from all those passes fans lose their minds with excitement and you can literally feel the energy. And that energy bonds the team more closely. The same is true when we engage community members with different life experiences. The goal, or successful outcome, in this case is newfound perspective and mutual respect.
So, be curious about the stories of refugees. Ask questions. Really listen and observe. Share your experiences and connect as fellow humans making your way through life. This is one of the best antidotes to the disease of exclusion that our world faces. And this engagement starts with a simple pass, no words needed.
This third element, exploration, is where the really good stuff happens at Refugee Soccer when we organize friendly matches between kids from diverse communities. The bonding that occurs at these matches is one of the purest examples of team-building I’ve ever seen. With no words at all, two teams that have never played together, let alone talked, share their love of soccer as soon as cleats are tied and uniforms put on. The understanding is instant, the respect evident, and the connections bonding.
In the first friendly match we organized here in Salt Lake City I was blown away by the sight of teenage boys living vastly different lives exchanging a few hugs and posing together after the match for selfies and this joint team photo. I am sure none of these boys, or their coaches and parents, will ever forget that day. And this powerful image drives me to continually create many more moments like this.
When you do connect with a refugee in your community, do something with them. You don’t have to play soccer with them obviously but there is so much richness waiting for all of us in working with and serving people from diverse places that are often the subject of gripping global headlines.
The thing is as humans we tend to interact mostly, if not exclusively, with people who look, speak, and think like we do. We all do this! And when we do, we also inadvertently leave out valuable team members and miss the opportunity to open our eyes, minds, and hearts to new ideas, experiences, and friendships.
This past holiday season, another young Afghan refugee named Salim joined teammates from his new soccer club to deliver food collected for five newly-arrived Afghan families.
I should point out here that every refugee who legally enters the US is eligible to receive one-time assistance of about $2,000 from the State Department. This assistance for food, furniture, clothing, etc. is expected to help them get settled in their first 90 days here while awaiting work authorization. And six months after arrival they are required to start paying back the transportation costs incurred when fleeing to the USA. Usually thousands of dollars!
The bottom line is that resettlement assistance is certainly beneficial but often inadequate for these new neighbors who are completely starting over in a land where they rarely know anyone or even speak the language. And they are doing all of this while trying to manage the emotional, and sometimes physical, trauma of fleeing unimaginable conditions in their homeland. So, I am sure you can imagine that these five Afghan families were truly grateful for the donations from this soccer club.
And here is the part of this story where the magic of what we do, what we all can do, revealed itself to these young soccer players. At one of the homes, Salim’s teammate, a 15-year-old boy noticed that this particular family was really struggling. In addition to having scarcely any food, they literally had nothing but beds in their home: no other furniture and no kitchenware.
The family asked for nothing. This teammate said nothing to the family. Rather, he reported the situation back to his coach and advocated for a family he had just met for the club to find a way to help them immediately.
Just a few days later this family received a new couch and kitchen essentials provided by the club.
Beyond the obvious comfort and aid this was to the family, think about the significance of noticing and acting on the opportunity to “make a pass” of service. Equally impactful was how motivated the young man who made this pass, and witnessed the successful goal, must be to make another pass, and then, hopefully, another.
THIS is how you create teams and communities through soccer using very few words and lots of energy, engagement, and exploration. No government assistance required. No red tape. Just humans from two different worlds brought together by a common goal and easing, even if just a little, our mutual journeys through life.
Whether we are seeking to build soccer teams of refugee and established kids, dynamite teams of super-productive salespeople, or more engaged and welcoming communities, remember that words matter less these days.
If you aren’t already hustling down the field of belonging sharing your energy and heart, then I invite you to join me to help build teams and communities of inclusion. Refugee kids, family members, co-workers, and neighbors are waiting for someone to lead them with some meaningful action and love unique to the team dynamic. The historic times in which we live are calling for us, you and me, to take our shot on goal for the millions of teammates around the world without a homeland and warmly welcome them home into our neighborhoods and into our lives.