Glenelg Country School junior Tala Ahmadi visited Spain with family last year while that county's national soccer team played in the FIFA World Cup championship — and to the surprise of many locals, she could hold a conversation about the team with its most ardent fans.
"They were like, 'Oh, these Americans do not just know football and drink beer. They actually know something about soccer,'" said Ahmadi, 16, an avid soccer player who knows perhaps more than most Americans about the sport's ability to unite people of different racial and cultural backgrounds.
The Gaithersburg resident planned to put soccer's magnetic qualities on display at the school this weekend, having helped organize the World Cup Soccer Tournament, a Howard County event intended to involve high school students suiting up to represent four countries.
David Weeks, Glenelg's director of global education and community service, said the event, which was slated for Saturday at Glenelg Country School, would be the first time that the Ellicott City school had hosted such an event for the Howard community on its campus. Ahmadi organized the event along with the Columbia Association.
Ahmadi, who began playing soccer when she was 5, came up with the idea for the tournament after winning a leadership grant from the Washington-based nonprofit organization Fund for the Future of our Children. Last school year, she was one of the winners of the organization's annual essay contest, which focused on the topic "Welcoming the Stranger" through the eyes of the three Abrahamic faiths.
On the organization's Web site, Ahmadi is featured outlining her essay, explaining how in her view the three faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam speak about welcoming strangers into one's midst. She says, "Understanding the needs of others, the cries of others, and the desperation of others, and then utilizing one's own talents to address those needs represent an equally rewarding manner to welcome a stranger."
She also wrote about how to take the ideas of welcoming strangers into a particular community, and pondered how to do a project to make those ideas a reality. The tournament is the result of her efforts.
"By replicating the World Cup on a smaller level in Maryland, teens will be able to appreciate and understand more about countries and cultures completely unfamiliar to them, while still participating in a sport loved by many," said Ahmadi, who said her experience of connecting with residents in Spain via conversations about soccer also occurred in visits to Morocco, Tanzania, France, Italy, Iran and Mexico.
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Weeks, who mentioned the Fund for the Future of Our Children's essay contest to Ahmadi, said that Ahmadi has found a unique way to bring together people of different backgrounds in a county known for its racial and ethnic diversity.
"Tala is very internationally oriented," said Weeks. "Her background is partly Iranian, and she is very sensitive to the international community, and interested in travel and culture. At the same time, she has this wonderful heart and cares deeply for the community and for doing what she can to improve its quality — especially supporting the disadvantaged in our community."
Ahmadi used the grant to help organize the tournament. As of Wednesday, nearly 50 students from around the county had signed up to play. She said players would be divided into teams representing four nations: Germany, Tanzania, Mexico and China.
The plans was for teams to square off in 40-minute matches, with the winners meeting in the championship and the losers playing for third place. Ahmadi said that an international potluck dinner and social was planned for after the tournament.
"The whole idea is welcoming the stranger, and we're targeting international students and immigrants," said Ahmadi. "We want everybody from all different schools to collaborate together."
Also assisting Ahmadi's efforts in the tournament was the Howard County-based International Youth Coalition, a collaboration between the Columbia Association, Glenelg Country School and a few Howard County public schools. The group brings together students from public and private schools.