This reflection piece comes from Leila Milani, a member of the Soccer Without Borders Board of Directors. Leila is currently a Senior International Policy Advisor at Futures Without Violence, and a mother of two soccer players who have both been Ambassadors for SWB, including Nabil pictured below on the SWB Culture Exchange to Nicaragua . She reflects below on her experience coming to America in the late 70s from Iran.
In the fall of 1978 the Iranian Revolution propelled the exodus of many of Iran’s citizens. The uncertainty of Iran’s future and the turmoil in the streets lead my father to make a decisive move. In the early hours of a crisp fall morning our family left Iran with two suitcases, never to return, leaving behind all that we had, my parents’ life work. After a brief stay with family and loving relatives in Luxembourg we made our way to America, to make a brand new life for ourselves. This journey has made me who I am today.
I was an eleven year old girl, an Iranian Bahá’í, who escaped her country to find refuge in a new land, a land committed to freedom, liberty and justice for all. I had to grapple with my identity and navigate through a challenging terrain while hoping to be accepted and allowed to grow, learn and mature. What my experience taught me was that it all boiled down to choices: how did I choose to respond to my predicament, how did our neighbors choose to respond to having new refugees next door, how did my classmates choose to respond to a new student from a country who had taken fifty-two Americans hostage, and how did America choose to respond to its new immigrants in search of liberty and safety. Our choices defined us.
I wanted, more than anything, to belong, to matter, and to make a difference. How did I survive, and find my way? How did those around me help me with that process? I had a good family and parents who cared for me. But for a time, that was simply not enough. I came to the United States during the Iranian hostage crisis, where fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days (November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981), after a group of Iranian students, who were supporting the Iranian Revolution, took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
My family arrived in North Carolina and we moved in with my uncle and tried to rebuild a life we had lost. I did not speak English. At that time, it was mandatory at my uncle’s house to watch the Evening News with Dan Rather. My uncle said, if you want to learn to speak proper English you listen to the best. So my evenings began with, cue music, “Good Evening, this is Dan Rather and it is now the 145th, 178th, 250th …. day of captivity for the American hostages in Iran. I was ashamed. I hated to be reminded of that fact every single night.
In the mornings as I boarded the school bus I prayed silently that the new remix of the old classic Beach Boys song, “Barbara Ann”, altered to “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” would not come on the radio. When I would hear it I would pretend to read or look out the window, hoping that no one would notice me. I had come to a new country and taken refuge there because I could not live in my homeland due to religious intolerance and persecution. Everything my parents had worked for all their lives had been taken, many of our relatives and friends were in prisons without trials, and summary executions were the norm. But the kids on the school bus did not know that. I did not know enough English to make my case. I was frightened. I was 11 and I wanted to be liked, I wanted to belong, I wanted to have friends. How was I supposed to accomplish that? I barely spoke English, I looked different, and where I came from was enemy #1. Was I going to make it? Was my new-found community and country going to give me a chance?
From that very beginning, I saw the choices that people around us made, deciding how to treat us. Some of the neighborhood kids decided we were the enemy, so they rolled my uncle’s house numerous times, sang along with the “bomb bomb Iran” song, and singled me out in my social studies class as the student from the country that had taken Americans hostage. I don’t remember their names or their faces; those simply don’t matter. But the names and faces I do remember were the English teacher who spent two hours every day with me with absolute care and compassion and taught me English, the family that lived down the street from my uncle, and my best friend Trudy. I call them the true Americans. Their acts of kindness and generosity of spirit helped define what I came to refer to as the American spirit.
I couldn’t tell you what I did last Christmas but I vividly and fondly remember Christmas of 1979. On that Christmas day, when American hostages were still in captivity, the Loge family invited us to spend the day with them. We went to their home and saw this beautiful Christmas tree with presents all under it. As we sat there, they turned to my sister and me and said, "there is a present under the tree for you." We opened it. It was a board game, LIFE. With their simple acts of friendship they helped me see the potential for good, and strengthened my resolve. They chose to love and to give. I was at peace.
We moved to Tennessee by the end of the school year and started to re-build our lives in another southern state. I was now trying to get acclimated to another new school. While my English was better and I knew that I would find good people wherever I went, I still struggled with my identity and sense of belonging. By eighth grade I had figured out that kids who were involved in some type of activity at school had a group of friends to hang out with and were acknowledged for their contribution to the school. I decided to try out for every possible sport I could in my junior high school. I tried out for the volleyball team, and the basketball team. I did not make any of the teams.
I knew I had to find some way to belong and to be part of my new community, so I chose not to give up. So, I waited until the spring and tried out for the track team and made it. Well, everyone usually made it, but that didn’t matter to me. I will never forget the day I received the Red Bank Junior High School track uniform. It was as if I had made the Olympic team. I wore my uniform to bed the night before my first track meet, and could not fall asleep all night. I wanted to do well and make my school proud. I was part of a team. I ran the 800 and the mile. I remember I got second place in the mile and as I finished crossing the line, people I did not know well cheered for me and congratulated me. I will never forget the feeling of entering my school on a meet day and noticing that my locker was all decorated with best wishes and a sign that read "Good Luck Leila! Run Fast! Go Red Bank Lions!" I belonged. I had a community that accepted me and wished me well, no matter what my background. More importantly I wanted to do well for my school and bring it a victory. I wanted to matter. I understand that it is not always that simple but it seemed simple to me; being part of that team was enough at that stage of my life to give me a reassurance and confidence that things would be okay and that I was not alone. I made a choice to engage with the other kids at the school and to be part of this new community.
I am now listening to my inner voice which reminds me of my past and shows me the important role so many good people played in my life. I choose to remember that even in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, I was allowed in this country and given the opportunity to live in a democratic nation where I could practice my faith without fear or intimidation, where I could pursue my education, and where I could contribute to its betterment. I choose to remember the friends and community that supported me. I choose to work hard to work for the betterment of all, and I choose to look at obstacles and setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth.
At a time when many of the refugee youth in our country may be experiencing fear, anxiety and searching for a sense of belonging, we must identify and support efforts and initiatives that are at the forefront of this critical work. I am honored to serve on the Soccer Without Borders Board of Directors and can’t imagine a better way to give back to my community. Recognizing the important role that sports could play in creating a safe space for youth, SWB uses soccer as a vehicle for positive change. In Baltimore, Oakland, Boston, and Greeley, and around the world, a tireless and devoted staff of coaches, administrators and educators come together to make sure that the under-served youth in their community have a place to call their own, have a coach and mentor to talk to in times of trouble, and a team to be part of in order to achieve victories, on and off the field. As they say …. "1, 2, 3 TOGETHER!"