I have to say I cherish my meetings with Ali in our “office,” a tiny booth in the rear of Stewart’s Convenience Store in Schaghticoke, N.Y. The visits usually begin with an early morning phone call from Ali, who needs something for the soccer team, of which I am a proud sponsor. It isn’t the Olympics yet in a way, it is.
I am a very proud sponsor of this team. Ali and I, a lapsed Jew and a fervent Muslim, meet at our “office” at least once a week for coffee and talk about our work with the soccer team and the refugees and immigrants in the Albany area.
There is a strong boundary between us: it’s his team, he runs it in any way he wishes, I help him for as long as I can and in every way I can. He is doing so much for this team.
Ali’s fame is growing, some people recognize him at the office either from my blog or from the newspaper stories about him and the team. I suppose I am a shadowy figure in some ways, but after Ali left today with his pizza slice and soda, the waitress asked me if he was “available,” she said he was cute.
Ali is a charmer, for sure, I had to give her the sad news that he is engaged to a woman now living in the Sudan, they will be married next year there and will then return here. Today, Ali needed support for a Birthday celebration for one of the soccer players.
Since many of them never get birthday parties or presents – there is no money in their families – we give them a barbecue or bowling party or cookout and a present that Ali chooses – something that he knows they need.
This costs between $100 and $150, depending on where we need to go and what the present is. Without Ali, there would be no birthday celebration, and every single player gets a party. Today’s birthday party is for Es-Taw, who is 14.
Ali also needed money for socks for Sakler Moo who is now at the Albany Academy, working hard on his homework. We help the kids on the team who need new clothes for school.
They have stiff dress codes in some of these schools. In addition. I paid for the insurance for our Big Red Van, and also reimburse Ali for gas for the van, which costs $80 a fill. We did all of this today for about $450.
The van is our Independence Day. We no longer have to ask anyone for permission to do anything but treat these children well and with love, and we both know just where all the money goes – to the soccer team.
It turns out that Ali and the Albany Warriors are getting quite popular, several people and at least one organization have contacted Ali and suggested – aggressively and persistently – that they wish to take over the sponsorship of the team and offer him a steady stream of tons of money and support.
This happened after a front-page story about the team in a local newspaper.
Some of this pressure is getting intense, and I see it is bothering Ali.
Ali seems almost passionately disinterested in these offers, but I told him he should feel free to do whatever it is that he needs or wants to do. I love sponsoring this team, but we both want to do what is best for them. That is Ali’s decision, not mine. He founded the team, owns it and runs it and coaches it.
He says he is not even considering switching sponsorship. I am glad to hear it but I leave it to him, he is free to do whatever he wishes, no strings attached.
Ali says he remembers all too well the years when there was absolutely no support for the team in any form at all. I remember when the team showed up in flip-flops and had to beg and borrow soccer balls for practice.
He says they are quite happy, and their new uniforms – The Albany Warriors – are coming soon. I was touched by what he said, but I would not interfere or object if he could do something better. I trust him completely.
And we are quite a great team ourselves, it feels very solid, and it only gets better.
It’s hard for many people – even those who have worked with Ali – to understand the very personal nature of his connection with his soccer team.
He is a surrogate parent for many of them, he guides them and protects them and teaches them and supports them. He fills the holes in their difficult lives and holds their hands as the navigate a difficult new world.
As close as I am to Ali, no one is remotely as close to these young people as he is, their bond is quite profound and beautiful. He will get them across the bridge.
We also share a very powerful and distinct passion for this work, for doing good in a time of trouble. This is not something I could let go of unless that is what Ali wanted. Our connection with one another makes this work.
I am happy to be in the background, a mysterious figure who appears to help them get what they need. The soccer team is about a lot more than soccer. I could not be more comfortable or fulfilled.
So another important meeting at our office today. It always feels good.
Ali and I are plotting get -together for his mother and Maria, the two can’t speak much to one another – Ali’s mother speaks little English – but they already seem to love each other. There are lots of ways to communicate beyond language.
Ibtesam wants to teach Maria how to cook Sudanese food, and Maria wants to make some fiber art with her.
Both of them are thrilled with the idea, Ali and I are picking a date for them to get together here on the farm, and also in Albany. I know they will love being together, they already have a powerful connection and have just met once.
Ali and I often talk about the time when this very wonderful exercise will end. The team will grow up, I will grow older, Ali will inevitably move on with his own wife and family. That day must come, as all things change.
But for now, it is a beautiful experience we are sharing, for as long as it lasts, something it may be difficult for outsiders to understand, but which we both cherish very much. You all are a part of it and thanks.