Growing up in Yemen, Zaynab Abdi loved watching boys in her community play soccer, but was never allowed to join in on their games because she was told, "it's not a sport for women." Sometimes, Zaynab would cover her hair or pretend to be a boy just so she could get away with playing with them. But, eventually the boys would catch on, tease her, or say that they were "ashamed to be playing with a girl." Years later, Zaynab's life was turned upside down when she was forced to move to Egypt, and then the United States as a refugee. Throughout this tumultuous time, soccer remained a constant in her life.
When Zaynab was 17, she was placed in an international high school in St. Paul, Minnesota that offered specialized ESL classes, but there was no soccer team or gym. As an active student council member, Zaynab went to the head of the school district to explain that she and her classmates needed a gym and space to play and exercise. But, her main concern was that there was no soccer team. "I was like, Wow, I didn't have soccer in my hometown and to come to the United States and not have soccer — that's crazy," she says.
If they don’t score a goal for us, we just laugh, and that happiness is just amazing. That team made me love soccer more and more. It’s not about winning as much as having fun with my team.
The school district worked hard to get the students a gym and a soccer team, but the principal told Zaynab she needed to convince her friends to join the team. "Mostly every single one of us is an immigrant or refugee and have been going through a lot of things," she says. "They're struggling everyday, and share a trauma of war or conflict in their home. So, most people were like, No, I don't want to." With Zaynab's persuasive prodding, she was able to create a team of 15 players from every country, religion, and race — many of whom had never touched a soccer ball before.
Now in college, Zaynab was featured in a 60-Second Doc as part of a Red Bull series that highlights women breaking barriers in soccer (which you can watch below). She spoke to Refinery29 about how her team helped her find a "sisterhood" in the United States, and what it means to be a refugee:
When did you get into soccer?
"I love soccer. Back home, I loved watching the sport soccer, watching the players going in the World Cup, I was so excited. I feel like I didn’t see a lot of women in sports, because on TV, they show you the men's [team]. When I came to the United States, I watched the 2016 U.S. World Cup, and that was the first time watching women and that was amazing. I loved how they played.
"In the United States, they show the soccer team of the women on TV, but outside [of the U.S.] you would never see a lot of that. Just like, men playing soccer, and games, and the World Cup were male — that's it. That's why I had never known there were women soccer players. For me, I feel like growing up, I was like, Can I really be that professional to go to that level? I definitely had that passion even in my high school."
Tell be about your team! Are you any good?
"In my high school when I was playing soccer, we played about 16 other high schools in the state. We lost all of the games, but the last one. We were so funny, because we all like learning. Everyone is enjoying the outside, some people were like, Don’t touch the ball with your hands and it was so fun.
"For other people, it may look like they made a mistake, and it would make them mad. But, if they don’t score a goal for us, we just laugh, and that happiness is just amazing. That team made me love soccer more and more. It’s not about winning as much as having fun with my team. We love each other and we laugh together. So, that's why we love playing every time — we’re living.
"In both teams, it's like playing for fun, playing to be engaged with a sport. Most people that I try to recruit are people who have never played soccer. I’m not athletic. I was trying to just make them come and try. And then they tried, and they come every time."
I saw an article that you wrote, in which you said, "When I came to the United States, I witnessed many people talking about refugees' issues without knowing what it really feels like to be one." What do you wish people knew or understood about refugees, especially right now?
"When I came here first as a refugee, we never chose to have another name than our own. So, having this name, getting through times, it's different for us. We have never chosen to be a refugee. We never chose to leave our own country and home. I loved my life in Yemen; it's so beautiful there.
"The thing is, people I'm in class with came to me and said, 'Go back to where you came from,' or, 'You don’t speak English — go back.' Tell me go back, it's like go back to where? Where a civil war is going on and it’s never ending? I love friends and family, and there's millions of refugees they want to go home because they miss home [and] their communities. But they can’t because there's no safe place, no education.
"[I want people] to also understand that we're humans and are going through a lot of trauma. Sometimes, people see war in their nightmares. People commit suicide because they can’t stay [in their country]. If people aren’t accepting, they feel like the world doesn’t want them at all."