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PHS student kicks off senior project

Kassem Akil is on a mission to change the lives of Egyptian orphans and Syrian refugee children one soccer ball at a time.

The 17-year-old is a junior at Phoenix High School. He kicked off his senior project this spring with an ambitious goal to collect soccer balls, cleats, jerseys and shorts for the refugees and orphans he will encounter on a family vacation to Cairo and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

He says the children he met while living in Cairo 18 months ago touched his heart. The images of the “terrible poverty” they endure inspired him. A soccer ball, he says, may seem like the “smallest of gifts,” but he has seen firsthand the joy and happiness an impromptu game of soccer can bring children who have very little of either.

Akil lived in Cairo the first semester of his sophomore year when his parents, Ginger and Ramkin Akil, worked at the American International School there. His bedroom window overlooked an orphanage for boys whose ages ranged from 3 to 23. They wore the same shabby clothes day in and day out, and their playtime was spent kicking around a flat soccer ball.

“It really wasn’t a ball at all,” he recalls. “It was the inside of a ball.”

Every time he was able, Akil donated shirts, shorts, shoes and soccer balls to the boys.

“I would then go play soccer on their patio that was covered with holes and no soccer nets.

“My small drop in the bucket had a ripple effect throughout the orphanage. The smile on their faces was an image I will never forget. It touched my heart as much or more than maybe I touched theirs.”

There are an estimated 12,000 orphans in Egypt, who are often labeled “a street child, unclean, child of sin, a beggar” — a social stigma that does not end when they become adults.

Akil says his project was inspired “by what (the orphans) don’t have."

“They don’t deserve to be in that position," he says. "They can’t fulfill their passion. They have no money … nothing."

He admits that clothes and shoes are necessities for these children’s survival, but “sports are what brings people together. Sports, like a makeshift game of soccer, can bring joy even if it is only for a few moments.”

Akil says the powerful, emotional experiences in Cairo have motivated him to reach out even further and on a larger scale. He imagines the conditions in the refugee camps in Lebanon to be even worse than those he saw in the Cairo orphanage.

According to Amnesty International, Lebanon has the highest concentration of Syrian refugees in the world. It is home to some 1.5 million Syrians who have escaped the war. They make up nearly a quarter of their host country’s population.

The camps in the Bekaa Valley are tent cities, where flimsy canvas covers provide inadequate shelter from the strong, icy winds and other harsh weather conditions. Food, fuel and work are scarce.

While visiting an uncle and his father’s family in Lebanon, Akil saw firsthand the miles of refugee camps in Bekaa Valley, 10 miles from the Syrian border.

“I look forward to bringing over as much as possible to make a difference in as many people’s lives as possible,” he says. “I can’t provide every refugee with clothes or soccer balls, but even if it’s a few, it’s something.”

“I am hoping to bring at least a small amount of happiness.”

Whether in Egypt or Lebanon, Akil doesn’t worry about language barriers.

“I let the game of soccer do that for me.”

Akil knows the game of soccer well. He has played since he was 5 years old. A right wing on the Pirates’ varsity squad this past year, he was recently recruited to play on the Rogue Valley Timbers elite soccer team.

Soccer in the Rogue Valley and across the nation is so competitive, he says.

Most soccer players here “don’t see the sport as an opportunity to make friends,” he adds.

In other countries where soccer rules, a common love for the sport has forged friendships with children of many cultures.

In an essay, Akil writes:

“Last summer I had the experience of gathering a small group of Indonesian school kids to play soccer on the beach. All I did was dribble the ball down the beach and they all came to see and hopefully play with ‘the American.’

"Their curiousness of me and eagerness to play soccer made a strong lasting impression that has a place deep in my heart. I realized how easy it is to bring people together in other parts of the world.”

Akil is collecting boys’ and girls’ soccer cleats, jerseys, shirts and shorts, new or gently used. He says he’ll even take “unwanted, misprinted or discontinued items.”

“What we might consider unusable in America is quite usable to people who suffer from extreme poverty,” he says. “They appreciate and don’t take for granted what they are given.”

He has set up collection bins at Phoenix High School and at the Soccer Post in Medford and plans to be at U.S. Cellular sports complex for the Rogue Memorial Challenge, a three-day soccer tournament in Medford, May 27-29.

Akil is working a part-time job at Porter’s Restaurant in Medford, plans a garage sale, and has started a Gofundme account to raise money to cover the cost of boxing up and shipping donations as well as his travel expenses. He has collected a few balls, but says he can purchase those once he arrives in country.

Monetary donations can be sent to gofundme.com/ramgin-msn-com.

Akil leaves for Egypt and Lebanon June 20.

— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Phoenix High School junior Kassem Akil has collected soccer balls, gear and other items to brighten the lives of Syrian refugees and Egyptian orphans in Cairo. [Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]