Holladay • Marli Martin stopped coaching and couldn’t help but listen.
It was an early morning at Olympus High School, and select members of the Titans girls’ soccer team were scrimmaging against #SheBelongs, a team of Utah girls on which half are refugees and the other half aren’t.
Martin, who coaches #SheBelongs, caught a conversation between one of the Olympus girls and an opponent, Romisha Adhikari, who is from Nepal. The Olympus girl was asking Adhikari about her life before and after coming to Utah.
“For me, that was the highlight of it,” Martin said of the scrimmage. “It was so cool for those [Olympus] girls to just care about who they were playing against.”
#SheBelongs is a new girls’ soccer team that operates within Refugee Soccer, part of the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Bridges to America Inc. The soccer program itself aims to use soccer to connect refugees with others in the states.
Exchanges like the one between Adhikari and the Olympus player are what founder and director Adam Miles envisioned when he started Refugee Soccer in 2016. And it’s the type of moment that has happened countless times in the past several months as the refugee girls got to know the locals on their own team.
“I think it’s really beautiful because when you put non-refugees with refugees, it really shows how you can still work together,” said Teeba Abdulameer, from Jordan. “There are no differences, really, between the people. Yeah, they might have different religions or come from different countries or whatever. But at the end, we still all work together in this beautiful sport.”
Sutton Hull, a forward on the Park City High girls’ soccer team, said her mother is a refugee from Cairo who faced difficulties fitting in through college. So when she learned about the #SheBelongs team, she felt it was a good idea to join and seems to have gained some perspective as a result.
“My life has been pretty easy compared to theirs,” Hull said. “It’s difficult to hear what they have to go through. But I’m grateful that I get to spend this time with them and learn about their lives and how to help other refugees like them.”
The scrimmage with Olympus marked the first time #SheBelongs played soccer against anyone other than themselves. It was an opportunity to get some real game-like action before heading on a multi-country trip that will include seeing the U.S. Women’s National Team play in New Zealand on Friday against Vietnam in the World Cup.
Olympus coach Jamie Evans said she gathered varsity, junior varsity and graduate players to compete against #SheBelongs. She added that she wanted to give the team “a good experience with a lot of kindness, with a lot of support.”
Evans, who learned about the program from Martin, said the value of her girls sharing the field with #SheBelongs is spending time learning about people who didn’t have as many opportunities growing up.
“I just think it’s so good to see things outside of what you normally see,” Evans said.
The #SheBelongs team embarked on a multinational trip on July 9 that will span San Francisco, Tokyo, New Zealand and Australia. The team will scrimmage against other refugee soccer teams in many of those places.
Those involved with the team feel they have the opportunity to spread a message of belonging to other countries, particularly in person.
“Everyone in different countries have different outlooks on these things,” Abdulameer said. “Females playing sports, or people that have different religions or come from a different race, they all kind of just have a lot of inequality around the world. So when you go around and spread the message, it might be different for everyone around there.
“You see something on social media, you treat it differently than when someone tells you face to face.”
Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, said she helped #SheBelongs get “a couple hundred thousand” dollars in money from the state for uniforms, equipment and other needs. She thinks the program will empower players to “act like they should be accepted” in all areas of life.
“If we can help these young women and young men be successful in our state, be a big fish in a little pond, their future will be so much brighter,” Watkins said.
The state of women in sports has been a topic of increased conversation in recent years, particularly with the rise in popularity of women’s college basketball and gymnastics, the WNBA and USWNT. The issues those women face — equal pay being a notable example — have also come to the forefront.
Yvette Ingabire, who is from Rwanda, feels the program can pay big dividends for women beyond just sports.
“I feel like it goes deeper than soccer,” Ingabire said. “It encourages us as women to remind ourselves that we can do higher things. We can go and reach and grab for things that are beyond what men or around us imagine.”
The #SheBelongs team is the first of its kind in Utah, and those involved with the team think it can set an example across the state and beyond.
“As we come home,” Martin said, “I think it’s important that we continue that message and continue to make sure we do get involved in communities, that we make sure that this team still stands.”