Players PromiseApr 24, 2018

Kickstart Joy with Mehdi Ballouchy

"I thought: 'If they're happy with what they have, how can we ever complain about anything?'"

Mehdi Ballouchy always knew that soccer was more than just a game. After retiring in November 2016 following an 11-year career in Major League Soccer, he felt compelled to give something back to the sport that's given so much to him. So the following summer he gathered a few friends and 20 suitcases full of equipment and set off for Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, about 8 miles south of the Syrian border.

Tents, trailers and other temporary shelters house a community of more than 80,000 at Zaatari - a refugee camp that continues to radiate positivity despite seemingly having the deck stacked against it.

To say that Zaatari is situated in a harsh environment with difficult conditions would be a tremendous understatement. Located in the middle of a desert where summer temperatures reach 115 degrees and rainfall rarely exceeds 5 inches per year, agriculture is nearly impossible to sustain. Still, people have started to rebuild their lives following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War seven years ago.

Zaatari Refuge Camp

According to the United Nations, refugees (someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence) don't return home until an average of 17 years after a crisis. So despite the hasty assembly needed to open the camp within nine days, there's a feeling of permanence, as bustling expansion has resulted in Zaatari being visible from the NASA Earth Observatory.

External eyes may not see much beauty when glancing at a tent city inside of a 2-square-mile enclosure in the middle of the desert. But the beautiful game is definitely present at Zaatari.

Field at Zaatari

On the southern edge of the camp, a full-size soccer field with an artificial surface was installed by the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP), giving the gift of soccer to the residents in hopes of restoring some normalcy to their lives.

In addition, as part of a collaboration, the UEFA Foundation for Children has teamed up with the AFDP to provide coaching education for more than 250 refugees, helping to train nearly 5,000 kids.

These initiatives provided a starting point for Ballouchy. With the help of MLS Works (the league's charity initiative) and former club New York City FC (where he now coaches the U-15 boys team), Ballouchy got the ball rolling on Kickstart Joy, a foundation whose mission is encapsulated within its name.

"We wanted to just basically give them a little bit of an escape, even for a little bit," Ballouchy said, speaking about Syrian the refugees the new foundation had identified as their first project.

However, in spite of everything that's happened, he and his friends found that these people aren't feeling sorry for themselves or looking for handouts - quite the opposite, actually.

"I felt like I didn't give them anything, I felt like they were giving us everything," Steven Lenhart said.

Lenhart Meets Refugees

Lenhart, who spent nine years in MLS, played against Ballouchy as well as alongside him during the 2012 and 2013 seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes, joined Ballouchy on the trip, and it wasn't difficult to convince 'Lenny' to come along.

"Anything that Mehdi does, I'm on board."

"They had so much energy and so much joy. I wonder whether we pulled it out of them or they pulled it out of us," Lenhart said.

Lenhart, who says that service is paramount in his approach to life, loves being a part of Kickstart Joy because it allows him to make meaningful connections with people through soccer. But after the trip to Jordan, he questioned who was really receiving the service in this deal.

"Any philanthropy work you go and do, you think: 'Oh, I'm giving them jerseys! And providing this need for these people!' But, while that's true, the deeper transfer was the amount of joy that they can choose to be in every single day despite their homes being ripped apart and their family members dying. That was way more satisfying of a gift than like, a pair of shoes or any material thing," Lenhart said.

"They had so much energy and so much joy. I wonder whether we pulled it out of them or they pulled it out of us."

Current analyst Bobby Warshaw, another member of Kickstart Joy’s first expedition, echoed Lenhart's sentiment.  

"It really was the whole idea that wealth is relative, right? I just got the impression that I'm pretty sure these people are more happy in life than I am half the time," Warshaw said.

Despite these newfound worldviews on materialism, the equipment that Kickstart Joy was able to provide the kids at Zaatari made a massive impact. Although big organizations like MLS Works and NYCFC helped out, a grassroots effort was started to collect the essential equipment for operating the clinic.

Soccer at Zaatari

"We also got a bunch of youth clubs from around New Jersey, New York and Long Island to do these big gear drives - to donate gently used equipment, shoes for us to take with us and donate to kids over there," Ballouchy said.

The 11 Kickstart Joy volunteers lugged 600 jerseys, 200 pairs of cleats and 150 balls with them to Zaatari. This gear was given to the kids in the camp so they would have something to wear when they played. After the training sessions, the gear is left at the pitch for the next set of players to use. Since there's not enough to go around, it's the only fair way to ensure everyone has an opportunity.

"When these kids were on the soccer field and they were playing, they didn't look like war refugees. They looked like kids in your local town when they're on the soccer field wearing jerseys. Once they take off the jerseys and they put their clothes back on - like one sandal's missing, they're wearing ripped jeans that haven't been washed in like three years, there's like five holes in their t-shirts and they're all dirty and stuff - they just go back to being sad," said Šaćir Hot, who met Mehdi when they were both playing for the New York Red Bulls and joined him on the trip.

Always looking to improve, Ballouchy has his sights set on spreading more joy in the future.

"Mehdi's always been that kind of a guy. Even when he was playing in MLS, he'd always gather up cleats from fellow teammates and he'd always send them back to Morocco. He's always been doing that throughout his professional career and he knows that's something that I'd be interested in," Hot said.

This time around, 'Saci' has been tasked with organizing gear drives around the New York/New Jersey metro area in an effort to expand the operation.

While Ballouchy, having only recently relocated to New York, lacks the connections, Hot, a 26-year-old New Jersey native and coach of FC Motown and New York Red Bulls academy scout, knows the ins and outs of the of the youth development scene.  It is those connections that will help them successfully expand the effort.

"Every year we're trying to make it bigger and bigger, trying to help out as much as possible," said Hot.

Helping refugees is a cause that appeals to Hot. His Albanian parents fled Montenegro to escape the genocide in 1991 -- first to Canada, and then across the U.S. border in the back of a cement truck, claiming political asylum upon arrival in New Jersey.

Two Zaatari Refugees

Unexpectedly, education also came to play a significant role in the way Ballouchy thought about Kickstart Joy.

"What they found out in these refugee camps, and it's really interesting for me to see, is a lot of the kids drop out of school. When you link sport or any fun activity - and soccer is huge with the Syrian community - when you link soccer with education, a lot of kids get way more interested and keep coming to school," Ballouchy said.

That's where the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education came in to play. Martin Edelman, a board member both at Catalyst and City Football Group, helped put Mehdi Ballouchy into contact with people at the Catalyst Foundation.  

Since March 2011, more than 5.6 million Syrian have fled their homeland to escape the civil war. With children making up an estimated 58 percent of Zaatari's population, the most vulnerable subset of this population is left without structure in their lives during crucial development years. Schooling exists, but boys and girls attend class separately at different times during the day because of limited classroom and teacher availability. Barriers to entry, like transportation and costs, can keep kids out of school. And even if they're at school, average class sizes of 70 elementary-age students aren't really conducive to learning.

Before the war started, nearly 30 percent of Syria's youth was enrolled in higher education. Today, more than 200,000 university-aged students have had their education disrupted.

Catalyst's flagship initiative, the Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), connects refugee and displaced students with online learning opportunities, virtual advising, scholarships and other educational resources.

Elizabeth Cheung-Gaffney, Senior Program Officer at the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education, said that programs focused on sport offered by aid organizations are sometimes the first to get cut. After working with Kickstart Joy, the foundation has begun to explore more programs outside of higher education.

Zaatari Refugee Children

"They're not in school all day, but then there's nothing else. There's nothing keeping them engaged with any formal activity," said Cheung-Gaffney.

Globally, refugee youth is at a record level, and a lot of those would-be students are not attending classes on a regular basis. According to the Catalyst Foundation, just 1 percent of more than 60 million refugees worldwide attend university, compared to the global average of 34 percent.

Elizabeth Cheung-Gaffney, or ‘Liz’ for short, knows the importance of pairing sport with education. A star defender at Columbia University, she was inducted into the Lions’ Athletic Hall of Fame where she started every game during a 4-year career.

“So what we've been told by the camps is especially in the summer, they need stuff to do to keep them constructively engaged, so I think this fills a real niche and a real need in the camps,” said Cheung-Gaffney.

Next summer, Kickstart Joy is going back. They'll be going to Zaatari as well as Azraq, a camp about 55 miles to the southeast, where the newly-arriving refugees are being sent due to Zaatari nearing capacity.

But despite obvious parallels, Azraq is a different place than Zaatari in many ways. First and foremost, there are metal shelters with dirt floors instead of tents, all in a row and unable to be reorganized or improved upon, like many residents at Zaatari have taken to doing. There's no budding internal economy that's formed, no electricity at night and no soccer.

That doesn't mean that there isn't any Joy.  

You can help Kickstart Joy too! Reach out to Mehdi ( or Liz ( to find out how.