Zayd Ali, 17, of Washington, D.C., a senior at Sidwell Friends School, founded a group at his school that has partnered with several organizations to arrange a variety of soccer events for hundreds of refugee children over the past few years. Zayd, an avid soccer player and fan, got into an intense discussion about the sport with a Brazilian Uber driver in 2016, and ended up learning about the man’s life, family and faith. “If I could learn so much about one person through our shared love of soccer,” Zayd wondered, “how could I harness this power in my own community to bring people together who usually don’t get the chance to interact?”
The answer to his question was “OnSide,” an initiative that uses soccer to help young refugees connect with others and adapt to their new surroundings. Zayd recruited fellow high school students to form a board and then began seeking partnerships that could help accomplish his mission. So far, OnSide has worked to organize soccer scrimmages, summer camp soccer clinics, a soccer tournament and outings to professional soccer games for refugee youth from Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. To fund its activities, Zayd’s group sells specially designed shirts that celebrate the drive and determination of refugees and counter the perception that they only bring terror and crime. Zayd is now recruiting and training new project leaders to take over when he graduates and is planning to continue his efforts in college. “OnSide has made coming to a new country easier and more fun for hundreds of refugee youth by connecting them to friends in their new environment through a sport they love,” said Zayd.