I’ve never played soccer in an airport terminal before.
I found myself in an energetic game recently against two enthusiastic competitors — a pair of girls, ages three and five, who fled their home country of Afghanistan with their mother, father and one-month-old baby sister.
I was invited to tag along on a trip to the Kansas City airport with a group of volunteers to pick up the first family from Afghanistan to settle in Manhattan since the country was seized by the Taliban in August. About 100 people have expressed interest in relocating to the Manhattan area, with friends or family already living here and local support systems in place to welcome the newest Americans.
The young children didn’t seem too phased by the ordeal. The one-month-old baby — who was born in the Kabul airport just two days before the family hopped a flight out of Afghanistan — slept quietly in her mother’s arms as the two older sisters created some crayon artwork in notebooks provided by resettlement team volunteers.
After filling out some paperwork with Northeast Kansas Catholic Charities case workers, the father and others left the terminal to go install child seats in the van we borrowed for the night. The mother stayed in the airport with her children, as well as me and a TV reporter who was setting up her camera for a 10 p.m. live shot. The two girls got bored of coloring and began to play with the soccer ball sitting in a pile of luggage and toys.
The ball rolled my way as I jotted down a few notes, and I instinctively returned it with a light kick. The five-year-old kicked it back to me ... hard. I could tell the girls were grinning underneath their masks. They said a few things to me excitedly, in a language I don’t understand. The only English they knew was “thank you,” but that didn’t matter. Play is something that is universally understood without need for words.
I looked at the girls’ mother, who also was smiling beneath her mask. Behind me, the TV reporter was preparing to go live. I put my notebook away and kicked the ball between the two girls.
They scampered for it, laughing the entire time, and thus began the game. One of the girls would toss the ball to me, then I’d kick it, roll it, or bounce it off my head back to them, and so on.
At one point the five-year-old tripped on her own feet and fell face first onto the unforgiving stone floor but got up quickly and shook it off. I glanced at her mother, who just shrugged. I wonder what she thought of the complete stranger who entertained her children next to the baggage claim among other travelers crossing through Kansas City International.
We played for another half hour to 45 minutes before the van was ready to go and we were able to leave the airport. The spontaneous soccer game wore the girls out, and they slept for the entire car ride back to Manhattan. I also was exhausted and passed out as soon as I got home.
I don’t often get to indulge my inner child while on the job. Then again, I don’t typically get pulled into impromptu soccer games in airports.
When it does happen though, I’ll always remember it.