Once a week, Ali (Amjad Abdulla) and I meet at the Stewart's convenience store in Schaghticoke, N.Y., equidistant between Albany, N.Y., where he lives and works, and Bedlam Farm, where i live and work.
He is the sweetest man with the biggest heart. We have been meeting for awhile at the convenience store, we have a favorite orange plastic table and booth, we sit with the construction workers at lunch and the big men in trucks.
We have lots to talk about these days, we have coffee and a sandwich and plot support for the kids on the RISSE soccer team, and now, the new girls' Basketball Team. Ali and I call one another "brother," and it is like that, we are so easy together know.
I always bring Red, he stays out in the car, and Ali, who is a formal, well-mannered man always comes out to greet Red and also sends his best wishes to Maria.
We have a full agenda every time. Ali and I are different, yet similar, we laugh every time and usually finish one another's sentences. He wants me to come to the Sudan next year when he gets married, I'll have to think about it. Somehow, I get the feeling they don't much like people like me there.
We talk about how much money we have left in the refugee fund, and how best to spend it. Sometimes, it's on very personal teams, sometimes it's for the team.
I tell him we have to make the money last, we never really know if it's going to be replaced when we spend it or whether it can last awhile. There are so many needs.
We try to plot and plan and figure out what the team will need this year, week by week, season by season, and more importantly, what the boys on the team might need, as well as the girl's on the new basketball team, which is a couple of month away from league play. We are pretty clever, we are pleased with ourselves.
Ali says there is a saying back home, don't lick all the honey out of the nest, there won't be any left. I tell him I have a saying too, keep going until you drop or someone stops you.
One boy has only one pair of pants, the American kids in school make fun of him all the time, so I gave Ali a check and he will go out and buy some pants today. We both agreed that was the most pressing need. Our First Rule: the kids needs come first, above everything.
Kevin Smith of Sportsplex keeps buying the team pizza after their 90 minute practice (some of these kids only get one meal a day on weekends), they are tired and hungry after playing. But we need to cover his costs, I say. The pizza costs $75 for all the kids after practice, Kevin and I agreed to a discounted deal, we get the pizza for $35.
I gave Ali money for a months' worth of pizza after practice.
Ali said we would need some soccer balls soon, Kevin, an angel who has miraculously appeared to help the team, came up with 18 used soccer balls in good shape. Each member of the team will have his own used ball. No charge. Ali told me one of the kid's families is very low on food, the household has a single mother who works, she is hardly ever home and makes a bit over the minimum wage.
We are going to bring home some groceries to his family in a week or so. Thanks to several generous donors, we have just raised enough money to buy uniforms for the girls' basketball team.
Two of the soccer kids have birthdays this week, and birthdays are a big thing for Ali. He says the refugee parents don't celebrate birthdays and don't have the money for parties, but they are important to the kids, so we agreed on one party for all the kids, and Ali will have enough cash to buy each one a gift.
Generally, he takes them out for food and arranges a party.
We talked about how shy the boys are, how they will never ask for help, even when they are in dire need.
We just have to figure it out what the boys need. The only thing they ever ask for is McDonald's. But if you listen and pay attention (Ali does, and I do when I can) you can pick up some things. Some of the other kids told Ali about the boy who needed more pants. He would never have said a word.
I am exploring buying each of the members of the soccer team an equipment bag, one like all the other players in the soccer league have to carry their clothes and soccer sneakers (the RISSE team do not have soccer sneakers, just regular ones.) I came up with a new twist – equipment bags with the individual name of each player on the bag, something the other team players do not have.
Ali loves this idea, when he flips over an idea, he says it is "the greatest thing ever."
Apart from the impact on morale, I see these kids have nothing to hold their belongings in. Ali says they would love the bags. A few have backpacks. It would be "the greatest thing ever," he said. Good enough for me
I'm no athlete, but I've been told how important things like equipment bags are in terms of identity and morale. It makes the kids feel important, that they belong to something special, and they can use them almost every day of their lives.
Ali wanted to stencil the "Bedlam Farm Warriors" on the bags, but for once I talked him out of it. The bags should have their individual names, they don't need to mention. Although Ali did tell me a curious thing, wherever he goes, people spot the "Bedlam Farm" name on the uniforms, and they offer to help out the team or pay for their meals. He says he has to fight to buy himself a cup of coffee now. God bless these good people, they all mention the blog..
Ali is getting lots of messages from people who read the blog and have all kinds of ideas about things they want to donate or things they think the kids need. Many are e-mailing him.
Ali is not used to having any celebrity, he is nonplussed by the messages. I told him to forward them to me. Right now, as federal subsidies are being cut, the family's needs are quite basic, mostly food and in some cases clothes or household supplies. They are not really in need of decorative or personal gifts. We both think we need to stay small and focused, and right now, the focus is on the soccer team.
RISSE is putting up an Amazon Gift page, the things the refugees and immigrants need will be posted shortly. I think that will be the best way for people to help in material ways, because they list things that are needed.
I told Ali we just had to keep talking frequently, keep communicating, and do the best we can for as long as we can. We generally meet in Schaghticoke every Tuesday or Wednesday. One day we might run out, but will keep going until we do.
Every time I get nervous and think the refugee fund will dry up, the Army Of Good checks in with some donations, and we stay in business. We have about $1,600 in the fund right now. I like it to be around $3,000, we use the same account for the Mansion residents.
If you wish to donate, the need is great. We want the kids to have decent clothes and good food and decent equipment, and we want the soccer team to beat everyone in their league. The symbolism goes way beyond the game.
If you wish to donate, you can send a contribution to Jon Katz. P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., ("refugees)" or "soccer"), 12816 or me via Paypal, email@example.com. Refugees and immigrants are under siege as never before, I hope we cam help fill some of the holes in the lives of these children.
The Schaghitcoke Confabs have become important to me, and indirectly to some good people in need of help. The light shines on Ali, his heart and soul are filled with love and generosity. He is always thinking of the kids, of the team.