One night last January, Adam Miles had a spark of inspiration. Leaping out of bed, he ran to his whiteboard and wrote down two words — #SheBelongs

The newest project for Refugee Soccer, a social impact venture founded by Miles “to create moments of hope and happiness through soccer around the world,” was soon underway. Twenty-two girls, ages 16-18, half of them from refugee backgrounds, joined together and formed a team by April. Their first practice was on May 16. 

And now they are off to Auckland, New Zealand, for the 2023 Women’s World Cup with stops in Tokyo and San Francisco on the way. The team leaves Sunday and will play exhibitions, speak with government officials, visit refugees and even watch the United States play in a World Cup game.

The program’s mission is to foster true belonging, improve emotional well-being and empower girls to reach their fullest potential as athletes, wage-earners and citizens.

For Romisha Adhikari, who moved to the United States in 2017 from Nepal, #SheBelongs is doing just that. She knew only one other player when the program began but has now developed several friendships and says she feels included. However, that wasn’t always the case. Adjusting to a new home thousands of miles away from Nepal was not easy. 

“It was a really big change. It was really hard to adapt to the new culture,” Adhikari said. “What was really hard was feeling included in the community and also speaking English.”

But when #SheBelongs held their last practice in Utah earlier this week, Adhikari was laughing and joking with her teammates, one of them Salt Lake City native Stella Fonnesbeck, who is loving the whole experience.  

“I learned how important it is for refugees to get involved in this,” she said. “A lot of the girls are new to soccer, and the best thing about this (program) has honestly been seeing the girls evolve into the players that they are now. It’s insane how much they have grown from the first practice, where we were learning how to pass.”  

Romisha Adhikari, of Nepal, left, and Anu Arumugarasa, of Sri Lanka, laugh during a scrimmage at their #SheBelongs soccer practice at Lone Peak Park in Sandy on Thursday, July 6, 2023. #SheBelongs is a four-month program bringing together refugee and nonrefugee girls through soccer. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

As practice concluded, Miles presented the team with new uniforms for the trip. The excitement was palpable, and girls held up three fingers to signify the amount of days left until the journey begins.

Forty people, 36 of them women, are going on the 16-day, three-continent trip, which includes three female coaches and 10 female volunteers. It starts with a few exhibition matches in San Francisco. 

From there, the team will spend five nights in Tokyo and speak with Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Yoshikawa Yuumi. They’ll also be going to Tokyo Disneyland. Then, the team is headed to New Zealand, where the Women’s World Cup kicks off on July 20. The goal is to have fun and leave a lasting impression across the globe.

“The opportunity to share the things that make us the same, the things that bind us together, that’s really what I hope to accomplish from this whole trip,” Miles said. “And then leave a legacy behind … (and share) this idea of forming teams and clubs and organizations that adopt this idea of #SheBelongs to really encourage girls and their families to come out of wherever they are in their comfort zone.”

For the 11 nonrefugees on the team, Tokyo will offer a new perspective of being in a whole new environment from what they are used to. In that way, it will give them a chance to have some of the experiences their refugee teammates have had. Miles has planned activities where the girls will be tasked with buying a loaf of bread, or a can of Coke. They’ll have to use Japanese money and communicate in a language they don’t know. 

“I want the non-refugee girls to have that experience of ‘This is Hard. I’m in a foreign country. I just want to get a loaf, I just want something to eat.’ Let alone signing up for schools, signing up for soccer like all these refugee families have gone through,” Miles said. 

Adam Miles shows the #SheBelongs team members their new gear for traveling to the Women’s World Cup hosted by Australia and New Zealand at Lone Peak Park in Sandy on Thursday, July 6, 2023. #SheBelongs is a four-month program bringing together refugee and nonrefugee girls through soccer. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Miles founded Bridges to America, Inc., a registered nonprofit organization, in 2005 to legally reunite African families to the United States. He finally visited Africa years later and developed a new outlook on life. 

Refugee Soccer, managed by Bridges to America, came along in 2016 to help the approximately 60,000 refugees living in Utah, according to the Gardner Institute. Shortly after, Miles left his 20-year career as a successful financial adviser to pursue something he deemed more important. And while #SheBelongs was given a name on that night in January, Miles began developing the idea much earlier after a troubling realization. 

“It’s always bothered me that the preponderance of the people that we serve are boys,” he said. “I have no problem with boys … but from the work that we do, the population that we serve, 90 plus percent of it is boys and I’m like, ‘Wait, where are the girls?’” 

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Drawing inspiration from SheBelieves, a movement associated with the U.S. Women’s National Team that encourages young women and girls to pursue their dreams, Miles eventually created #SheBelongs. However, there’s one key difference between the two initiatives. 

“Not at all to knock SheBelieves, but as someone said to me, they’re like ‘SheBelieves is futuristic, #SheBelongs is right now,’” Miles said. “These girls belong. These girls belong on a soccer pitch, regardless of their citizenship status or life story.”

And while the inaugural year of #SheBelongs ends after the team returns from their trip on Pioneer Day, Miles wants the program to continue “for decades.” 

“The idea is that we start to create a legacy, where #SheBelongs exists for a very long time to come. Where it becomes a norm.”

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