DENVER - Emad Bashir-Mohammed didn't know what it was like to play soccer with cleats until he was a teenager.
That's because he's was born in Darfur, Sudan, and grew up in a refugee camp in Ghana. Cleats were hard to come by. So too were balls and a decent playing surface, for that matter.
"You'd have blisters on your feet at the end of the day because the sun is like over 100 degrees," says Emad, a junior on the Johnson & Wales University men's soccer and track teams.
"I never had cleats until I moved here to the United States."
Although he can look back on those days now and smile, Emad doesn't want others to have to grow up with that same experience. So a couple times a year, he gathers up as much lightly used equipment as he can – balls, cleats, pinnies and cones – and has it sent to Africa.
He asks everyone he knows to donate, but a lot of it comes from his employer, Bladium Sports & Fitness Club, and his coach at JWU Denver, Andy Kohel. However, the effort is hardly his alone. In fact, it's part of an organization called Sadaya United, which aims to empower underprivileged youth through the game of soccer.
Emad met the founder of Sadaya United, Thomas Fahn, shortly after moving to the US five years ago. Emad got to play club soccer thanks to Fahn's club team, AFRO United, and says Fahn is the single biggest reason why he decided to play college soccer.
Fahn has since moved to Liberia, so Bashir-Mohammed wants to pay if forward by contributing to Sadaya's efforts while also taking over as the AFRO United manager. Emad was able to send around 60 balls and cleats to Liberia in the fall and is about to send over another haul this spring.
"Right now the balls I sent in the fall are there. They're using them. The kids are having fun, they're enjoying it, learning something new," he said. "My goal is to continue to gather as many balls every three months or so. Over there the balls and cleats do not last because of the surface they play on. It's not like grass here or artificial turf. It's like rock-hard sand. In those conditions, the balls don't last long.
"Having the ball on their feet, it's the best feeling ever. I feel like they're happy they get a ball to play, because not every kid out there gets a chance to play."
While Emad is doing what he can to help kids living thousands of miles away, he's also making a huge impact on the JWU Denver community. It's hard to miss his smile and infectious, positive attitude – whether you're a teammate on the men's soccer team or just another student on campus.
"I feel like he does a great job of being aware of other people's energy and how he approaches them," says Alexis Araiza, a junior on the men's soccer team. "He's happy beyond the field. He's grateful. He's a hard worker, always grinding, always trying to reach up."
"He's one that always has a smile on his face. He's the guy within our group, men's soccer, who is always bringing the guys in, 'Hey we need to push harder.' Those types of things to get the guys going," Coach Kohel said. "Just seeing him grow and continue to connect dots on campus shows how passionate and how good of a human being he is.