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24 Mar 2023, Edition - 2810, Friday

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How one man used royalty, rednecks and football to help Syrian refugees



Samuel J Fox, a lawyer from Los Angeles, saw the Syrian refugee crisis and felt compelled to act. “It was heartbreaking,” he tells the Guardian of the brutal, harrowing pictures of displaced children that spurred him into action. “Something, anything, needed to be done.”

For Fox, that something was football. He began what he called a “movement” to provide football jerseys – and hope – to the thousands of displaced, poverty-stricken youngsters living in camps with nothing but the tattered shirts on their backs. And so JerseyEX was born.

It’s a remarkable tale of rednecks, refugees, royalty, show business, and sports stars, incredible serendipitous meetings and the genuine goodness of Fox (with help from his friend and associate, New York producer Eric Angelson), who has, out of his own pocket, gone to incredible lengths to help those less fortunate than himself.

The story, naturally, begins in 1990 with legendary redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Fox was at Foxworthy’s side providing legal help throughout his career. The now 61 year-old Foxworthy enjoyed a stellar stand-up career and authored a series of books about redneck lifestyle with titles such as No Shirt. No Shoes … No Problem! – and his fame opened unexpected doors for Fox.

One of those doors, involved a surprising phone call. “I’m calling on behalf of the King of Jordan,” the voice said. Fox hung up. It was surely a crank caller. The phone rang again. It was Major General Gary L Harrell, a decorated US Army veteran, based in Jordan, where he was helping the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, establish an anti-terrorism training center.

It turned out the king was a fan of a reality show presented by two clients Fox had met through Foxworthy – Abdullah wanted to meet them. Once the disbelief lifted, he went to the Middle East with his clients, and met a friend of the king’s on the return flight to New York, during which an opportunity to advise on a digital strategy for Jordan presented itself. “The goal was to bridge the digital communities of Amman and Los Angeles,” he says.

A consulting contract was agreed and Angelson, whose background also included digital technology, was enlisted. When the king visited California, the pair attended a reception with him and Andrew Harper, the Jordan-based head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Abdullah and Harper gave presentations showing the plight of Syrians crossing the desert into Jordan to escape violence and persecution in their own country.

“The photos were haunting,” says Fox. But one image in particular caught his eye. “There were three kids running barefoot on rocks, smiling and kicking a ball. It made me want to go to a refugee camp and bring some happiness,” he says. “So that became the plan.”

He found a shop in Los Angeles that collected old jerseys, and 180 shirts were loaded into bags. Fox and Angelson then headed off to Jordan and the newly opened Azraq refugee camp. Conditions were bleak – there was no electricity and little water for the estimated 10,000 inhabitants. The mood, however, was quickly lifted. One by one, children of all ages queued up to receive the jerseys and greeted Fox and Angelson with warm hugs and handshakes. “Eric and I were so moved,” says Fox.

This, however, was just the start. The contract to build a digital bridge between the US and Jordan was canceled, as Isis’s brutal stranglehold on the region grew. But the football connection was forged and the pair wanted to do more to help the refugees they had met.

That opportunity quickly repeated itself, thanks to a chance meeting at a conference in Los Angeles run by Jusoor, an organization that helps Syrian youth with education. “Our strategy was simple; talk to everyone,” says Fox. “We explained to some of the attendees we had just been to Azraq to distribute jerseys and were now trying to figure out a way to send some more. This man looked at us and said, ‘I’ll ship them for you – for free.’ I was blown away.”

The man was Fadi Ghandour, who founded Aramex, one of the biggest shipping companies in the Middle East and North Africa. To date, 15,000 shirts have been sent.

Fox and Angelson’s knack for connecting with the right people continued. When they were in Jordan, via the Royal Film Commission, Fox and Angelson were introduced to the king’s brother – Prince Ali bin al Hussein, who headed the Jordan Soccer Federation and also ran for Fifa presidency in 2015. Prince Ali’s offer to waive customs charges for any shipments was a massive moment for Fox, who was funding JerseyEX out of his own pocket. “I couldn’t have done this without him and Fadi,” he says.

Fox then met Richard Walden, founder of Operation USA, which collects items to be offered in disaster zones. Hollywood legend Julie Andrews is a spokesperson for them – and they, by sheer chance, had thousands of extra jerseys in a warehouse. Fox took them all. The next development came through another unlikely source.

“I got a call from [humanitarian organization] World Vision asking to donate 400 jerseys to reward children for a hygiene-education program in partnership with Sesame Street,” says Fox. “I said yes, but then we never heard back, so I said ‘I’ll do it myself.’ Then, I had an epiphany – if jerseys can give children a moment of joy, then football can be used to motivate these kids to change their lives and take control of their future.”

Fox was inspired but desperate for celebrity endorsement to fast-track his efforts through a video campaign. Luckily, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United were in LA during the summer of 2018.

“Dortmund were training [at the University of California, Los Angeles], but the session was closed,” recalls Fox. “Then, I saw [former NBA star] Steve Nash whom I had represented for his first Nike contract 20 or so years ago. He was with Christian Pulisic, and when I shouted my name to him, he couldn’t believe it. He got me over the barrier and I managed to shoot a video with Christian.”

The theme of the seven-second video – and subsequent clips created with Manchester United duo Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe – was simple: players pointed out the importance of washing hands before eating. More videos were filmed in Jordan by Widad Shafakoj, a brilliant director found in Amman, featuring their women’s World Cup team. That led to a partnership with USA for UNHCR and that, says Fox, “gave me some serious credibility.”

The next logical step was to get soap to the refugees. A deal was struck to buy soap from the Zarqa Life Center, a community safe haven for women and children affected by war, who make and sell the product to support themselves. A second contract was agreed with soap makers at Za’atari refugee camp. A further donation came from Trinitae, a high-end Jordanian soap company. During their last trip in August, Fox and Angelson distributed over 2,000 bars in Za’atari and Azraq. Fox even created a catchy football chant that the refugee children in Azraq sang on the pitch.

So what does the future hold? The dream is to work with clubs and players to create football-centric media with life-affirming messages. Fox also wants to partner with a soap company to generate revenue to continue to support UNHCR and help his program. For every bar sold, another bar is donated to a refugee family.

“The true potential of the sport is found not on the pitch, but in the lives of millions of children who watch it and play it every day,” concludes Fox. “The beautiful game can produce some beautiful messaging, even if it’s only seven seconds long.”

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