Dearborn-based nonprofit soccer program caters to refugee children

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
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Michigan Futball Club, founder Abbas Al-Wishah, left, plays in a soccer scrimmage with a group of kids that he coaches. According to Al-Wishah, refugee kids of various ages in his league are from more than a dozen countries.

To Abbas Al-Wishah, the melting pot starts with children of various nationalities circling the nucleus of a soccer ball.

The resulting energy will forge a pathway to a better future for the players pursuing the ball, if not foster cultural understanding for any bystanders caught up in the action. The one-time Iraqi refugee turned successful engineering manager will see to it.

Al-Wishah runs Dearborn-based nonprofit Michigan Futball Club, which helps kids ages 7-19 through soccer and education stay clear of drugs and crime. Many include refugee children from Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Somalia.

The group often meets at the soccer fields on Greenfield and Michigan avenues in Dearborn, three times a week, and at the Henry Ford Centennial Library to do homework or prep for the ACT or SAT.

“I take a lot of pride in the kids,” said Al-Wishah, who is an engineering manager at TE Connectivity. “The most passionate time in the day is when I coach them.”

On a Wednesday afternoon, Al-Wishah is all business with a group of children ages 7-10 who are formed in a tight circle going through calisthenics. Another group of older boys play a 7-on-7 game overseen by a volunteer. One boy ambles up to join in.

“When practice is 5:30 and you show up at 5:37, is that good or bad?” Al-Wishah sternly asks the boy, who stands before him.

“Bad,” the boy says with his head contritely bowed.

Al-Wishah whisks him into the proceedings.

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The Iraqi native came to the U.S. in 1993 after the Persian Gulf War when he was 9. His family settled in Erie, Pa., where his no-frills father put strict boundaries between sport and education.

“He said, ‘It’s either food on the table or your soccer program. Here’s a soccer ball, go play in the backyard,’” Al-Wishah said.

Al-Wishah played at Strong Vincent High School before the family resettled in the Dearborn area. He studied at Wayne State University, which didn’t have a Division I soccer program.

He initially coached kids for money but eschewed all that to start Michigan FC as soon “as the situation started in Iraq and Syria” nearly three years ago. The nonprofit formed in January 2017 and has served more than 100 youths.

“I’d rather take care of these kids than do it for money,” he said. “People told me I was crazy and they told me, ‘You can’t do it because people will be blocking you.'”

Al-Wishah said he’s received “a little bit” of pushback, citing a nine-month effort to have Michigan FC become guest members in the Western Suburban Soccer League.

He’s found the process frustrating, sharing a letter outlining numerous stipulations — including requirements there be a certified referee assignor and verification of reliable transportation — that need to be met.

Player registration, for example, can be onerous due to some participants being refugees.  

“If he’s born in America, it is a walk in the park,” he said. “If he’s born outside, I have to provide, everything ... documentation, and it’s a mountain of paperwork.”

Michigan Futball Club founder Abbas Al-Wishah, right, gives advice during a soccer scrimmage with a group of kids that he coaches. According to Al-Wishah, refugee kids of various ages in his league are from more than a dozen countries.

Michigan FC’s plight has led to an unlikely partnership.

On the transportation front, Dearborn Free Methodist Church offered a minivan after Al-Wishah struck up a friendship with the lead pastor the Rev. Erick Ewaskowitz.

The pair crossed paths through a mutual friend at an indoor soccer facility where the church was holding a tournament for refugee children.

The church was using the donated Mercury van to help transport women from refugee families in its English as a Second Language program. Many of those ESL students now have driver’s licenses, which made the vehicle available.

“He comes from one angle of faith and I come from another,” said Ewaskowitz, “and yet we’re able to find some common ground.”

The pastor has met Al-Wishah twice over coffee and had him over for dinner at his home. Al-Wishah’s community involvement is inspiring on a couple of fronts, Ewaskowitz said.

For one, the Iraqi immigrant diminishes the pain and shock he went through as a refugee in early 1990s, especially compared to trauma endured by the recent events that brought the children that he now coaches, the pastor said.

Al-Wishah’s unassuming nature is also striking.

“He could very easily say, ‘Hey, I’ve made it. I arrived and I’m going to live the American dream,'” Ewaskowitz said. “But he’s using what he's gained for himself to give back and to serve these kids and these families. These are kids he can resonate with. He knows what they’ve gone through.”

Michigan FC’s Murtadha Altdahabi and five members of his family were forced to flee what became ISIS-held Baghdad, Iraq four years ago. The family had applied to come to the U.S. in 2010 but didn’t get accepted until 2014.

Altdahabi would have graduated by now with exception of his education transcripts being left behind when his family fled Iraq.

“By the time I got accepted to America, I lost everything,” said Altdahabi, 19, who attends Dearborn Fordson.

Altdahabi, who is a striker on Fordson High’s soccer team, is captain for Michigan FC where he mentors younger players. He’s awaiting his results from his SAT, which he prepared for with help from University of Michigan and Oakland University tutors during Michigan FC study sessions.

He wants to play in Major League Soccer.

“That’s my dream,” said Altdahabi, who like Al-Wishah is a Shiite Muslim. “If I play at college, I’m still playing soccer. I don’t mind.”

Al-Wishah wants Michigan FC to foment soccer dreams but he sees himself morphing into a social worker.

He finds himself giving advice to refugee families on such things as how to establish a credit score or what’s required to obtain a W2. He’s even taken them to Sears Outlet to buy discount appliances.

“It’s not just soccer; I know these people individually,” he said. “Some of these families … I know where they are from, what types of issues they face. If they had a relative pass away in front of them in war and how it has impacted them.

“A majority are people who just want to move on.”

While Michigan FC's mission is to help low-income and refugee families, the program is also open to those kids whose parents believe in the cause and are willing to help.

Aziz Aghbalou, whose son Elias, 10, takes part, is appreciative the program is bereft of the profit motive that seemingly drives many youth soccer initiatives.

“It’s all about the community,” said Aghbalou, a Dearborn Heights resident. “It gets the kids together and provides a healthy environment.”

Mounara Hachem’s son Hadi didn’t even like soccer at first. Since learning about Michigan FC a year ago through a friend at Dearborn’s Maples Elementary, the 10-year-old’s hooked.

“He comes home and says, ‘He works us so hard,’” Hachem said. “He likes being here. He likes it more this year. He couldn’t wait to get here.

“(Al-Wishah) is very good with the kids. He’s a very good trainer.”

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