I’m Dropping Everything, Heading to Greece and Launching a Soccer Program for Syrian Refugees -- Here’s Why

05/04/2017 04:27 pm ET Updated May 05, 2017
Ritsona
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Ritsona

I moved to Micronesia in 2015 to teach high school English. Instead, my students taught me what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Micronesia is a beautiful place, and not the easiest place for kids to grow up. The island is impoverished. While home to some of the most diverse sea life in the world, most Micronesians earn small wages working in agricultural production.

Arriving on the island of Pohnpei, I knew I wanted to make an impact. What exactly that might be was a mystery to me. I was nervous my first day heading to class; what could I add here? I opened the classroom door to see my students faking jump shots across the classroom calling out the names of their favorite NBA players-- Lebron! Steph! KOBE! -- same way I did in high school. I asked them if they were on the school team. “What school team?” I had an idea.

The following week, 50 kids showed up across the street at the old outdoor basketball court. The only problem was we didn’t have a ball. And there were no jerseys. Also the kids didn’t have sneakers. One student ran back to his village and returned with an old tattered basketball. Everyone cheered at his return, and we got started.

Two hours later, exhausted, our first practice came to an end. But then I saw one of my students, Tommy, limping off the court. He tried to hide the bloody gash in the side of his bare foot. “How are you going to get home?” I asked him. “Walk, Coach.”

There was no bus ride home after basketball practice; fuel is expensive. If you wanted to stay for basketball, you had to find your own way home. Tommy walked home ten miles back to his village with some of his teammates, hobbling down the coral road that encircles the island. And he was there again the next day.

That week, I launched a fundraiser online. I told my social media network that I was coaching basketball and that our team needed help – we needed to raise money so that we could purchase basketballs, sneakers and jerseys.

In a week, we raised over $3000, enough to provide sneakers and a jersey to every boy and girl who wanted to play basketball.

On several occasions throughout the year and even after I left the island, students told me that basketball was the best part of their day, that it actually made them want to come to school, that they woke up in the morning feeling excited.

As I was walking into the airport on my last day on the island, an older couple approached me and asked, “Are you Jason?” I was a bit taken aback, but I told them that I was. They handed me a letter and said, “We are Lorleen’s parents. Thank you for what you have done with our kids.”

They handed me a letter from Lorleen. She was the captain of the girls basketball team. Her letter said how playing basketball this year was the best thing that ever happened to her, how it made her a better person. She then told me she was invited to join her municipality’s adult basketball team. She ended the letter with, “I’m so happy, Coach J.”

To this day, that letter is my most prized possession.

When I got back to the States, I knew that there must be kids all over the world whose lives could be improved through expressive outlets like sports and music. With some friends, I started a nonprofit organization called the International Sports and Music Project (ISMP) with the goal of using sports and music as a way to uplift people facing hardship around the world. We continue to help boys and girls in Micronesia play basketball safely and with pride. We’ve also partnered with a child rehab center in Kigali, Rwanda to provide orphans with music classes and sports teams.

Now, in just a few days, I’ll set out for Chalkida, Greece, where ISMP will be setting up our newest project -- a sports and music partnership in a Syrian refugee camp in rural Greece.

The camp is called Ritsona. About 750 people live there, a third of whom are children. People stay in tents. The camp is providing necessities like food and water, but beyond the basics, there is not much to life. Depression is widespread. People lack expressive outlets and opportunities to enjoy themselves. They’ve lost their homes. They’ve lost family members. Some have lost their entire family. With no other choice, these people got on a boat, and hoped that the boat would arrive somewhere safely. Most thought they’d be reunited with family in Western Europe within weeks. But since the EU/Turkey deal in March of 2016, most individuals at Ritsona have been trapped there for a year or more.

We’ve seen the positive effects sports and music can have in the lives of people in vulnerable situations. We go to Greece in the hopes of creating the same meaningful experiences we have for kids in Micronesia and Rwanda.

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