Ali was watching some of his soccer team members get into the RISSE van, and one of them turned to him and asked him, "Ali, you have a family, why do you spend so much time with us, helping us out?"
Ali teared up a bit, and answered quickly. "Because you are my family." Ali sometimes tears up when he talks about his soccer team, and they sometimes cry when they talk about him. It's difficult sometimes to explain the vast differences in culture in the lives of the refugees.
A couple of months ago, a woman wrote scolding me because there was only one female on the soccer team, as if RISSE or me were keeping them off. I didn't know how to explain to here that most of the refugee girls have no desire to play soccer with the boys – they are quite free to do so – many do not come from cultures that promote co-ed sports, or sports for women at all.
They are forming a dancing ream, and so far, the girls don't care to join that either. The soccer team is a powerful symbol to me, Ali has taken it upon himself to shepherd them from their hard transition to America.
Their parents rarely come to the soccer games, they work two or three jobs and also do not come from a culture where parents come out to cheer their kids in competitive sports. It is alien to them, and many don't have cars – they live in cities because they can only take public transportation.
The boys on the soccer team are especially needy right now, and I intend to support them as fully and continuously as I can. Ali is like a brother to me, we are very much on the same page, we support each other.
He and I have an arrangement. When a member of the team needs something, he tells me and I try to get it for them. Ali and I talk all the time about the fact that giving is selfish, it makes us bigger. Last week, he told me the story of Bae reh, he is from Thailand. Like most of the soccer kids, they have few winter clothes or boots. The refugee families are fleeing persecution, violence or natural disaster, they come with little or nothing but the things they can carry or wear.
I have started ramping up a clothing drive, and clothes are now coming into the RISSE daily. But it is really just a drop in the bucket. Bae reh, like many of the refugees, wears sandals and socks, he has no winter boots.
Ali told me he yearned for some Timberland boots, a size 7. He has younger brothers, Ali said, so when he outgrows them, they will be passed down the line, used for many years. I gave them to Ali today when I saw him in Albany and he passed them along to Bae reh when he picked him up from school to take him to after school classes at RISSE.
"He will be so happy," he said. Then Ali sent me this photograph, and it made me so happy. Every time I do this work, I feel bigger, better, stronger, more whole and grounded. How curious.
Giving lights a light in the heart, for the person who receives and the person who gives. Ali is determined to keep the kids busy during the winter, even on weekends and holiday breaks. We are planning ice-staking sessions, movies and some birthday parties.
We make a living by what we get, said Churchill, we make a life by what we give.
Sunday, he is taking the kids out for a pizza run (courtesy of the Army of Good) for $90. He's invited me to join him, I think Bae reh wants to thank me in person.
I will try and go if I can. I feel good that Bae reh got what he wanted, a fine pair of boots to get him through the winter. Thanks so much for supporting this work, if you wish to donate in any amount to it you can send a contribution to me at P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or via paypal, [email protected] Please mark it for the refugees or soccer team. Thanks.