How the biggest changes can start with the smallest things
When I traveled back to Eritrea as a young boy, I always brought the same gift back with me: a soccer ball. I knew what a precious commodity a soccer ball was in the neighbourhoods where my family and loved ones grew up. My family left Eritrea during the war, and I was born and raised in the Middle East with a very strong connection to our African roots. When I was young, and my father took me to the toy store, it was the one thing I always begged him to get. Even after I left to come to Canada, I remembered what a sensation a single Adidas soccer ball could cause in the streets of Asmara; games would manifest out of nowhere, tournaments would spontaneously be played. A soccer ball sparked our energy and brought us together in the most positive ways.
When my family made the big decision to move to Canada, it wasn’t an easy one. We were leaving our family and loved ones behind to start a new life. The sacrifices my family had to make were incredible, but, as my father always explained to us, the goal was a simple one: “We need to give our children a life of opportunity.”
And they did.
My life of opportunity came to me in the form of medicine. And although it has challenged me in many ways, the experience has been a rewarding one. I attended med school at McMaster University, then completed my Internal Medicine residency and Critical Care fellowship in Hamilton. During that time, I immersed myself in a wide array of disciplines, and had the opportunity to work with a diverse group of remarkable residents and staff. I discovered a passion for collaborating with other specialties and communicating with families, and learned that I could handle stressful situations and make decisions with very limited information. All of this spurred my interest in managing the critically ill. But even as my mind filled with all of this new information and all of these new ways of thinking, I never forgot about that soccer ball. It had been years since soccer had been a central part of my life. And I missed it. I needed it back in my life.
It started in 2012 with a weekly pick-up game that had around twelve players. As time went on, that number started to grow exponentially, and suddenly we found ourselves receiving messages from young people across the city wanting to join our soccer community. My friend Mensur and I decided to formalize this initiative into what it is now; The New Six. Today, with more than a 100 players travelling from across the GTA to join our weekly games and tournaments, The New Six is a place where newcomers and refugees from every corner of the globe can come together, meet one another, make connections, and find a place for themselves in the community. To empower our youth, with the skills they need to succeed in their new life in Canada, we’ve partnered with local organizations to put host educational workshops and mentorship programs right there on the soccer pitch. It’s more than just a soccer club—it’s a social movement.
Over the last year, we have seen immense success. Refugee youth are coming from shelters all over the city. Today, we have more than 15 players enrolled in post-secondary colleges/universities, and more than 50 players enrolled in secondary schools with the dream of attending a Canadian university. In February 2017, our refugee youth wanted to do something about the famine in East Africa, so we organized a charity game with Team Canada doctors and raised funds to support the cause. Seeing these young people demonstrate such generosity and leadership has inspired us to keep the program moving forward. Our dream is that one day we can push our movement across the country, and open doors for all the refugees and newcomers who come to Canada looking for a life of opportunity.
Today, I am a Critical Care physician living in the Silicon Valley, training in the Stanford Biodesign Innovation program. And yet, all these years later and thousands of miles away from Eritrea, soccer is still bringing people together in the most positive of ways. You can support the cause by visiting The New Six (www.thenewsix.ca) and learning more about what we do and how you can help.
Abubaker always wanted to be a professional soccer player but quickly realized that he should go back to the classroom and become a doctor. Now, he is an ICU physician that advocates for equitable global health. He is an aspiring entrepreneur and is working at Stanford University to push his passion for healthcare innovation forward. You will usually find him in airports planning his next trip before he even makes it to his planned destination. He enjoys immersing himself in the countries he visits, trying to understand the diversity in the cultures around him while reading in local coffee shops.
About the AuthorMore Content by Dr. Abubaker Khalifa