Sending soccer to Syria – Mount Mary teams up with Dr. Tarif Bakdash

Members of the theology club deflate donated soccer balls to send with Bakdash on his trip to Jordan in March

Theology club members deflate soccer balls for Bakdash’s trip to Jordan in March.

On March 30, Dr. Tarif Bakdash boarded a plane for a 13-hour flight to Amman, Jordan. In one of his checked luggage bags were 25 deflated soccer balls donated by Mount Mary University students.

To help Bakdash in his mission, Jennifer Laske, professor of theology, developed the soccer ball campaign that involved several campus organizations, including the theology club, international club, social work honor society and athletic department.

“These children have nothing,” Laske said. “They’ll play (soccer) with bottle caps, cans … anything they can get their hands on.”

The theology and international clubs asked Mount Mary students and staff to donate soccer balls and other gear.

Soccer single student Web

Michelle Hawkins deflates donated soccer balls

Michelle Hawkins, a senior majoring in international studies and minoring in theology, has a special connection to Bakdash. Hawkins met him through the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition.

Hawkins, student coordinator of the theology club and president of the international club, worked to bring Bakdash to Mount Mary.

“When I became the president of the international club and student coordinator of the theology club this fall, I knew I had to respond to the unfortunate media blitzes against Islam and Muslims in America,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins collaborated with Laske and philosophy professor Joan Braune to bring Bakdash into both teacher’s classes where he would speak the respective theology and philosophy students.

“I thought it’d be neat to have someone who’s Muslim come in and do a little Catholic-Islam dialogue,” Laske said. “The students loved him.”

CBS 58 News coverage of Soccer for Syria

Bakdash makes a difference

Bakdash, a pediatric neurologist, was born in Syria in 1956 where he personally experienced the violence within the Middle East. He lived there until he graduated from medical school in 1988.

After graduation, he left for the United States. Most recently, Bakdash was an associate professor of neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

With the Syrian refugee crisis expanding into various countries in the Middle East, Bakdash looked for a way to help refugees using his medical knowledge and background. He is a member of a nonprofit humanitarian organization called the Syrian American Medical Society.

“With 100 hospitals inside of Syria, SAMS has treated 2.6 million patients to date,” Bakdash said.

He traveled to Al Zaatari camp in 2015 by himself to help SAMS.This camp, located inside Jordan, has 85,000 refugees, according to Bakdash.

Compelled by the trip, Bakdash left his positions at both hospitals to focus on helping Syrian refugees for the foreseeable future.

During Laske’s and Braune’s class, Bakdash shared his experience growing up in Syria along and discussed Islam with students.

  • People In Refugee Camp

    Syrian children in a refugee camp

    23, 092 Syrian refugees referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions program by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees since fiscal year 2011

  • 7,014 Syrians have been interviewed by the DHS since FY 2011
  • 2,034 Syrian refugees have been admitted since FY 2011
  • 0 Syrian refugees that have resettled in the U.S. have been arrested or removed on terrorism charges

Information provided by UNHCR

Why Soccer?

“Soccer is the world’s game,” Hawkins said. “It is what brings people together. We want to bring awareness to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II in an effort to incite people to stand up and say that this conflict needs to end.”

Dr. Bakdash and Syrian Refugees Web

Bakdash throws a soccer ball with Syrian children refugees from his trip in March to Jordan

Bakdash knows first-hand that soccer balls will provide children some momentary relief from their hardships.

“It will make many children happy since they do not have soccer balls to play with,” Bakdash said.

Jonathon Gulrajani, athletic facilities coordinator, and the soccer program donated over 25 soccer balls, cleats and jerseys which Bakdash took on his trip this March. He is already planning another trip in May for refugees in Turkey.

Soccer for Syria campaign

The campaign will continue on campus indefinitely. Current donations will provide Bakdash with more soccer supplies for his trip in May. A bin marked “Soccer for Syria” will be in the Bloechl Center for students and staff to donate soccer balls and other equipment.

“These soccer balls are a mere Band-Aid for these children,” Hawkins said. “The Syrian people need the world to stand up and stop the fighting. They need real, lasting peace.”

To get involved with the Soccer for Syria campaign or to make a donation, contact Michelle Hawkins at, or Jennifer Laske at

Fox 6 News coverage of Soccer for Syria campaign

To learn more about Dr. Tarif Bakdash and his work, copies of his book “Inside Syria — A Physician’s Memoir” are available at the campus bookstore or online.


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