For Zayd Ali ’20, Soccer is More than a Game

Sometimes—and sometimes often—Uber trips involve nothing more than a silent ride and a five-star rating. But Zayd Ali ’20 walked away from one with a big idea.

“It was early in 8th grade, and I was wearing my Manchester United jersey,” Ali says. “The Uber driver looked back and asked if I was a soccer fan.” That’s when the driver began to tell Ali about his youth in Brazil, his parents’ early deaths, and the comfort he found in soccer. “If he could look up to one person as the most godlike figure for him, it would have been the soccer player Ronaldinho [Gaúcho], because he could see what Ronaldinho could do with the ball,” Ali recalls. “Ronaldinho would be smiling the entire time, and the millions of people watching would be smiling every time he got the ball.” The idea of the soccer star’s infectious smile struck something inside Ali. “The fact that one person could have that impact, that power on a mass of people—that really resonated with me,” he says. “It made me realize that if soccer could have such an impact on one person, how could I take that unique power and apply it to my own community? That’s when OnSide was born.”

OnSide is a group that uses soccer to build relationships and forge friendships between the refugee community and the broader community and to advocate for refugees and other marginalized communities. OnSide, which Ali founded when he was just 14 years old, organizes soccer events, including clinics and scrimmages, and sells an activism-inspired clothing line: The group donates one soccer ball to a disadvantaged child for every item of clothing sold. Ali calls it “soccer diplomacy.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Pakistan, in China, in Italy—you’re going to find a kid on the street playing with a soccer ball,” Ali says. “The fact that you can connect with anyone from across the globe on one sport seemed like the perfect thing to apply to my community here.”

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards agreed. Prudential and its partner, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, named Ali—as president of OnSide—a state finalist in its awards program, the nation’s largest initiative to recognize middle and high schoolers for outstanding volunteer service. In May, the honorees from each state and the District of Columbia will gather here in Washington (“It’s an all-expenses-paid trip,” Ali notes slyly) for workshops, recognition ceremonies, and the naming of the national winners. The award will help OnSide draw even more attention to the plight of refugee children in the United States. All because Ali understood that a game can be much more than a game.

Soccer, arguably the most popular sport globally, can build community across nations—like when a phenom from Brazil makes everyone in a stadium smile. “There are cultural barriers, linguistic barriers—and through soccer, you see those boundaries wither away,” Ali says. “You still can’t speak the language, but if you say, ‘Manchester United,’ with a thumbs-up, you’re automatically going to get a laugh and a high-five. And then that leads to exchanging Snapchats, exchanging phone numbers, Instagrams, and then forging a relationship with this person.”

OnSide isn’t only building bonds; it is changing the narrative about the refugee community as a whole. “What it’s really supposed to do is expose what refugees are bringing to this nation,” Ali says. “It’s not crime, it’s not terror, it’s not hate. It’s love, it’s grit, it’s passion, it’s drive, it’s entrepreneurialism, it’s leadership.”

Ali’s own sense of leadership took root at Sidwell Friends. (Six Sidwell students sit on OnSide’s board of directors.) “For me, Sidwell always promoted that message of community and letting your life speak, and that really resonated with me,” Ali says. “It’s antithetical to how many people think of Sidwell: They think of the hyper-stressed, hyper-pressured kid that needs A’s. But for me, it isn’t. For me, the Sidwell experience played a massive, massive role in what OnSide is today. When I saw something that I wanted to do and realized that I could do it, I chose to let my life speak.”

Kids from around the world are listening. OnSide has worked with refugee children from Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and more; sometimes that means kicking the ball around, sometimes it means a trip to see DC United play. It always means forging a connection.

“I wasn’t expecting it to have the power that it did,” Ali says. “But after getting to know the kids, it’s made me much more cognizant that people may have reservations about you, and you might have reservations about other people, but after you sit down and have a conversation with them and break through whatever was keeping you apart, those reservations mean nothing.” He intends to keep those conversations going, so that more kids can start to feel more at home in their new home.

“The power that soccer had was always something I was aware of, but I never wanted to take that extra step,” Ali says. “I didn’t have that motivation until I realized in that Uber ride that I could harness something like that.” You never know when you’re about to have a breakthrough moment.

It seems that ride definitely deserved five stars.


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