When we first walked into the migrant shelter, I’m not going to lie, I felt out of place. After watching documentaries and looking at pictures, my image of the shelter was a single room place that housed up to 40 migrants at a time for 3 days. The moment I walked through the door, I saw just how wrong I was. Immediately, 100 eyes fixated on us. And those were only the ones who were sitting in the central area. Another 70 migrants would watch us during the tour.
I slowly felt more comforted as an American voice greeted us to start off the tour. Turns out there were around 10 volunteers who helped out with the shelter, some of whom spoke less Spanish than me. My confidence started to rise. After going through the tour, we were told we had free time for the next 3 hours. What could I possibly do for 3 hours in a migrant shelter in mexico… play soccer of course!
They had stuffed another ball inside this one to get a functional ball. Sounds perfect to me. Subodh, Keely, and I began kicking the ball around. I’ve found that some things are universal. Having played sports for years, I know that there is always a process amongst guys who are looking to start a pick-up game. Usually the kids start first. They have no qualms and simply want to have some fun and here nothing was different. The first person to join our small passing circle was a young boy who told me to call him “jefe” (chief).
Then came the classic give and take that one can only find when a group of strangers get ready to play a game with each other. First the surrounding guys pretend to look completely uninterested even though it is obvious that they yearn to play. Slowly, with slight toe pokes and nonchalant passes, a few men begin to join. As others realize that it’s ok to join without looking too eager to play, a larger group starts to form. Within 20 minutes, we had gathered enough people to form 4 teams of 6 and the game moved over to the actual soccer field. We set up a rule where two teams played until one team scored 2 goals with the losing team rotating out. The game was on!
Through the international language of soccer, I quickly made 24 new friends. By the end of our two and a half hours of playing, I knew everyone’s names and our camaraderie made it seem like we had known each other our entire lives. Suddenly, it wasn’t very hard to start conversations. I ended up having an extended talk with jefe and another one of my teammates.
Jefe told me that he was originally from Honduras. He had came to the migrant shelter with his mother. However, while speaking about this, Jefe became very quiet. Sensing that he had some reservations on speaking about this topic, I decided not to press. Instead, I commented on what an amazing soccer player he was. He was a superb goalie, never backing down when men aged 25-30 years old blasted shots. We became good friends.
Meanwhile, Hector’s casual attitude towards his heavy past caught me unawares. He related to me how he operated a photography studio in El Salvador and loved his job. However, when gangs infiltrated his hometown, they asked for a “rent” of 700 US Dollars to let him continue his business or they would murder his family. Hector stood his ground but told me he regretted his decision because his uncle was killed. As a result, he fled El Salvador and walked for 20 days to reach the shelter. During his journey, he’d have periods where he would not eat for 3 days at a time. He walked barefoot and had severe sores by the time he arrived at the shelter. During his entire story, his tone was as casual as if we were talking about the weather or what he had eaten for breakfast. We switched easily from such conversations to talking about our favorite songs.
Looking back, I am affected by how much sadness there is in the world. However, there is just as much resilience and meeting these migrants has shown me that the human spirit will survive regardless of the obstacles.
It is astounding that this all began with a kick of a soccer ball.