This summer, the Greek America Foundation sent ten North American students to spend several weeks in Athens volunteering at shelters of The Home Project, a non-profit organization founded to protect and care for unaccompanied refugee minors — children who have arrived in Greece from various conflict zones throughout the world and who are alone without families.
Over the course of the month of July, our volunteers participated in various projects, tending to both the physical needs of The Home Project’s shelters as well as the emotional well-being of the children living inside them.
The students participated in a variety of activities with the kids – music and dance lessons, art sessions, pilates class, etc. – as well as tended to basic needs of the shelters.
On one of the days, the volunteers took a group of boys to the Fokianos Sports Park in the Athens National Gardens to play a game of soccer. Volunteer and Greek America Foundation intern Darden Livesay describes the experience below in his own words.
Socc– no, football – seems like something mundane on the surface. Essentially, it’s predicated on two groups of people kicking a ball around and trying to get it into the other team’s net. It doesn’t require any fancy equipment – just a ball, a pair of shoes or cleats, and some objects to mark the boundaries and goal posts.
The “superficial” simplicity of football, however, deceives us time and time again. We watch games being played and simply think, “Oh, it’s the United States versus Belgium,” or “That’s Barcelona versus Real Madrid,” and so on. We bear witness to international squads squaring off so often that it’s merely the norm. In other words, football has become such an ingrained part of world culture that we almost don’t perceive its true profundity.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “What kind of profundity are you talking about?” Quite simply, I’m talking about the profundity of football as a universal language – an unspoken means of communication that facilitates interactions between people of all ethnicities, religions, cultures, etc. More importantly, I’m talking about my experience with The Home Project, and specifically how a trip to the sports park allowed me to witness this phenomenon more clearly than ever.
It was a beautiful Athenian summer day like any other – clear blue skies and 90°F+ temperatures. Our plans were very straightforward: go to the shelter, meet with the boys, escort them to the park, and then try to find space for some sort of physical activity.
When we got to the park, we were sort of “floating around” for a bit, so to speak. We had never brought a group there and were overall unfamiliar with the protocol for getting field space – i.e. whether it was free; if not, then what was cost per hour; was the field already taken in advance; etc. I was quite honestly nervous that none of the space would be available.
But then, the most beautiful things started to develop. As we were trying to sort out logistics, the boys began congregating on the turf field in the background. Without any sort of command or anything, they just very naturally assumed positions and started to play. We also lucked out in a major way in that the field at one of Athens’ nicest parks just happened to be available on last-minute notice without prior reservation. It was as if it were all meant to be.
As I mentioned earlier, at face-value the game seemed so plain – just a bunch of young boys kicking a ball; however, in this moment I couldn’t help but think of the greater significance. I kept hearing chatter in the different languages – Arabic, Urdu, Farci, etc. – and yet these dialogues were not what kept the game alive.
Just through body language, random shouting, and being physically immersed in what they were doing, these boys were able to play as one. The universality of football allowed them to temporarily surpass any sort of cultural or linguistic barriers that normally hinder their communication. To me, this was a phenomenal demonstration of sports’ potential to unify humankind.
In the 60 minutes these boys spent on the field, it didn’t matter which nationality each one was, it didn’t matter who spoke what language; rather, the main concern was getting the ball into the net.
In fact, I believe that this day yielded an even bigger, more often-heard message than the ubiquity of football. This day was yet another reminder that, despite the differences that divide us as humans, all of us are on the same ultimate quest in our game of life: to score a goal.
– Darden Livesay, Greek America Foundation Volunteer