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The City Journals

Soccer the universal language for Hillcrest High boys soccer

Apr 30, 2022 11:38AM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High midfielder Salim Mohammadi and center back Mohammed Kareem are two multi-language student-athletes on Hillcrest High boys’ soccer team. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Hillcrest High freshman midfielder Salim Mohammadi knows Dari, Pashto, Persian and English. His teammate sophomore center back Mohammed Kareem speaks Arabic, understands Turkish and knows English.

Dozens of languages are known by Hillcrest High’s boys soccer players, but one is common: soccer.

That is what Adam Miles, founder of Refugee Soccer, loves about the sport.

“Soccer itself is actually a very beautiful language where you can bond and build teams to build belonging,” he said.

Hillcrest co-coach Gilbert Rojas agrees and appreciates that about his 19-member freshman-sophomore team that includes refugee student-players.

“There’s a certain humility and life experience that they bring, just a perspective that many of these boys don’t have and may never experience. Some of these students have experienced war in their country. Salim, for example, he’s just so grateful for all the opportunities he’s been presented with here,” he said.

Mohammadi came to the United States from Afghanistan in 2020.

“My dad was fighting with the United States Army against the terrorist group, the Taliban,” he said. “We were receiving a lot of bad letters from the terrorist groups. They put a price on our head. My dad didn’t want to move to the United States. The United States Army told my dad it’s not only for you, but it’s also for your family. We moved to Midvale, Utah, because it’s a lot like where we lived in Afghanistan with the weather and the same climate. Here we can have a lot of good opportunities. We can make better goals. We can be better people in the United States.”

It wasn’t an easy transition. With only knowing common English phrases he learned in school and being quarantined for months after the move, it wasn’t until he was able to go to school last year at Midvale Middle where he could improve his English.

He also played volleyball in his homeland, but here, more kids played soccer.

"I didn’t know anything much about soccer. I knew how to shoot the ball (playing with his volleyball). I thought it was boring, but when I started playing soccer, I knew I was wrong,” he said.

Mohammadi met East Midvale Principal Matt Nelson when he brought some donated soccer equipment to his apartment complex last summer. After receiving some soccer cleats, he asked Nelson about playing on a team. Nelson arranged tryouts for Mohammadi on Cottonwood Football Club with Tim Normand.

“Salim is just a naturally gifted athlete; he is so kind and so gracious and he’s all about helping others,” Nelson said.

Mohammadi joined two others to get a ride. Miles, who had never met him before, had him check with his mother that it was OK. He made the team and Miles found finances for him to play.

“Two weeks later, he’s playing the finals of this tournament and contributing to his team,” Miles said. “I was thinking, ‘this is how it should happen.’”

Rojas said that’s something some of Mohammadi’s teammates may take for granted.

“Not everybody has the finances to pay, but he has been sponsored and plays on an organized team to help him develop, and that has helped to immerse him in his community. I think the game of soccer and the sport itself transcends language barriers,” he said.

Mohammadi credits Normand for giving him a start.

“Everything I knew then was from the coach. He helped me a lot. He taught me how to have confidence. He told me how to dribble the ball. He taught me how to think before I’m receiving the ball. He taught me everything,” he said.

Now Mohammadi plays for La Roca Futbol Club under Ahmed Bakrim in the offseason.

“Salim came to me and said, ‘Adam, I want to be semipro,’” Miles said. “I told him, ‘Great, I think you have great skills and certainly the desire to do that.’ We talked to both coaches and the next thing is he’s on La Roca. Salim shows that hunger, a striving you don’t always see in established soccer club players. I love his hustle. I love his heart. He has skills that are continuing to develop. He has a shot at going pretty far at soccer. Many of these refugee kids have nothing. Kids in almost every country plays soccer, in the street, or small field, and it’s fun to watch them get on the big field. They often play with energy and playing dynamic you don’t see in the U.S. We have the opportunity to share with one another and have that connectivity to help them and in return, they help us.”

Miles, who helps many refugees locally as well as globally, said the community can benefit from embracing one another.

“Refugees live in our communities and contribute more than I think they get credit for and they’re not going back. Many of them may be driven from their homelands. Nobody chooses to be a refugee from combat. They’re seeking refuge. They’ve learned resilience and overcoming challenges and taking on hard things,” he said. “I realize that I’m lucky to hear their stories, to be able to meet the families, to smile and laugh and learn more. It enriches my life.”

Rojas said Hillcrest’s team aims to embrace each other.

 "Culturally speaking, we can learn more about where they’re from and we’ve learned in practice a little about their faith practices, their nutrition practices. We had a barbecue and I specifically made chicken for the boys who don’t eat beef and so we had a conversation come out of that. We learned and respect that Muslim teammates don’t eat pork; we have a team manager who is from eastern India and he doesn’t eat beef. We can learn a lot about the world through these boys,” he said.

Mohammadi also has learned from his American teammates and freshman-sophomore coach Christian McVey.

“I try as hard as I can. I try to make my teammates work hard so we can have a better team and they teach me too,” he said. “Coach Christian taught me that we have to be a family, everyone. We’re working all as a family and that’s the best thing and the most important thing I learned. We’re all connected and supporting each other.”

Rojas agrees: “There’s an excellent camaraderie here already. They tease each other, but they support each other too. They don’t hang their heads; they don’t give up. Together, they can lift each other up and they know they’re all leaders on the field and demand the best of each other.”

Mohammadi’s teammate, Kareem came from Iraq and Turkey. Kareem has played soccer since middle school; last year, he played alongside his brother Abdullah, a junior.

“When people are really new, they’re at a disadvantage because they don’t understand what the coaches are trying to tell you,” Kareem said. “You’re new, you don’t know the language, the system.”

He uses that understanding when helps teach youngsters in his community how to play.

“When they don’t speak English, I can play with them and use words they can learn and show them,” he said. “I can help out with that.”

Kareem, who hopes to play soccer in college, said not only does he practice with the team two hours per day, but he also will practice dribbling around cones at home or jogs for endurance.

“The coaches and players here treat you fairly, but they demand excellence. They don’t want us to give up, but to keep trying and do our best,” the honor student said. “I just love the hype of it all, when you score, when your teammates score, and you cheer for your team.”

McVey, who has coached the team for five years, said the team will watch the varsity play so they can support and learn from one another, but demanding excellence extends to being best in every aspect of their lives.

That is something Rojas hopes will have an impact on their academics and future.

“We have an opportunity through the game of soccer at Hillcrest…to reach kids and help give someone the right motivation to continue to focus on education, to focus on the skills outside of sport that can help develop career opportunities and different pathways for the future. These boys help each other, hold themselves accountable on the field and in their academics. They need each other and if not, they’re not eligible. They don’t want to bring the whole program down,” he said. “I think from the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion, it shows Hillcrest and our program is welcoming to everyone. It doesn’t matter where you hail from, if you bring the right skills, the right attitude and you’re coachable, then definitely, you can compete for a spot on the team. There’s a place where you can belong.”