Over the years, Dazzle Africa has been fortunate to work with so many inspiring people who we like to call our Dazzle Family. They are passionate about conserving wildlife and uplifting those in need, and they help drive our mission forward by supporting our work through donations, fundraising, and volunteering. Because of them, we are able to truly make an impact in Zambia.
One of the newest members of our Dazzle Family is Omar Pareja. Just beginning his college journey, he has already done amazing work teaching children about STEM subjects and donating soccer uniforms to kids around the world. To say we are in awe of Omar is an understatement. He is an incredible young man with a bright future, and we were thrilled when he contacted us about making uniform donations for Dazzle’s sponsored soccer teams. Read more about Omar in our interview below.
Tell us about yourself, Omar!
I am a recent graduate from the French International School, Lycee Rochambeau. I have a diverse background, being half Lebanese and half Peruvian. Although I was born in Lebanon, I have spent my entire life in Washington, DC. I am proficient in multiple languages, including French, English, Arabic, and Spanish. One of my greatest joys is traveling and immersing myself in different cultures, as well as connecting with people from all corners of the globe.
In addition to my love for exploring, I have a deep passion for cooking, STEM, and soccer. In 2019, I co-founded STEM for HOPE alongside my brother. This initiative aims to educate children from underprivileged backgrounds about the latest STEM subjects, introducing them to cutting-edge technologies and inspiring hope for their future. It has been an incredible journey so far, impacting the lives of over 150 children, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, by exposing them to various STEM topics. Our goal is to expand this venture to Latin America and other parts of the world where children with limited resources need support in their educational pursuits.
The most remarkable aspect of this project is witnessing the happiness and curiosity in the eyes of these children as they eagerly absorb the knowledge and experiences we provide. Seeing their enthusiasm during my lectures and watching them build robots is truly inspiring. When the pandemic struck, I successfully transitioned from in-person to virtual lessons. Despite the challenges of power outages in Lebanon due to the economic crisis and the time zone differences between the US and Lebanon, I felt a deep connection with these children. Their stories and testimonials touched my heart, reinforcing my determination and motivation to assist as many disadvantaged children as possible and empower them to succeed.
Another activity I thoroughly enjoy is cooking. It brings me great pleasure to experiment with different flavors and techniques, constantly refining my dishes until they meet my exact standards. I find myself joyfully restarting recipes and adjusting the quantities of spices and ingredients, striving to achieve the perfect balance that suits my taste buds. It’s a delightful process of exploration and creativity that keeps me engaged in the culinary world.
How is school going? What are your future educational goals?
I graduated on June 15, 2023. I will be attending UPenn Mechanical Engineering in the fall. I have plans to double major, still deciding. Probably combining engineering with entrepreneurship or finance.
What connection do you have to sports?
Soccer is my ultimate passion. I have been deeply involved in this sport since a young age, and it has become an integral part of my life. To me, soccer is an art form, a captivating display of skill, strategy, and teamwork. Witnessing the fluid movements and coordinated efforts of players and teams is truly mesmerizing, and being actively involved in the game is an experience like no other. Since middle school, I have held the position of a defensive player on my school team. Despite not having the typical height associated with that role, I possess a natural talent that compensates for it. I relish the challenges and rewards that come with being a defender – the ability to read opponents accurately, make split-second decisions, and maintain both physical and mental discipline. It is a position that demands constant readiness and adaptability.
While soccer holds a special place in my heart, I have also dabbled in other sports. During my younger years, I played tennis and participated in local competitions in the area. Additionally, I was a member of my school’s swimming team until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, soccer remains my true passion, the sport that ignites my spirit and fuels my determination. In addition to soccer, I enjoy exploring various sports such as golf and surfing, embracing new experiences and challenges along the way.
What experience led you to start collecting and donating soccer uniforms and equipment to those in need?
During my summers in Lebanon, I often stayed at my grandmother’s apartment, which happened to be close to a public park. One day, as I was walking by, something caught my attention. A group of kids were playing soccer barefoot and using a makeshift ball made of textiles. It was a sight that seemed straight out of a movie. Intrigued, I approached them and watched their game. Their joy was palpable, and one of them invited me to join them. Initially hesitant, I eventually decided to embrace the moment and remove my tennis shoes, wanting to fully immerse myself in their experience. As I did so, the kids erupted in applause, appreciating my gesture. Playing barefoot, I let my feet guide the game, and an overwhelming sense of happiness washed over me. The smiles on those kids’ faces left an indelible mark on my heart. Despite their lack of shoes, jerseys, or soccer equipment, their passion for the game knew no bounds. They had created a ball from leftovers and found joy in simply kicking it with their bare feet.
Every summer, when I returned to Lebanon, I sought out these kids to play with them. The group grew, and they affectionately referred to me as “Pareja is back.” I was twelve years old at the time. During my visits, my mother would bring back suitcases filled with items that we had outgrown. This inspired me to bring soccer jerseys for the kids. I had a whole rack of jerseys in my closet that I no longer used. The kids would regularly check with the building’s concierge to know when I would be returning to Lebanon. They became an integral part of my summer or holiday trips. The happiness I witnessed when I handed them the jerseys had a profound impact on me. This experience led to the birth of “Jersey for a Smile.” I realized that there were many other children around the world who would greatly appreciate receiving a jersey. While I didn’t have an abundance of jerseys to share myself, I wanted to create a platform where other kids could contribute their jerseys. However, living in a non-community neighborhood made it challenging to collect clean jerseys through a donation bin. So, I enlisted the help of my parents’ friends who lived in various communities to gather the jerseys. This was just before the pandemic hit. To my surprise, the response was overwhelming. I collected close to 400 jerseys, and I was deeply impressed that people took the time to wash them before donating. It quickly became more than I could handle, but luckily, my mother allowed me to store the jerseys in our basement. I sent full suitcases with my father to Peru and Chile for donation.
During my research, I came across Mr. Paulo Luizaga at the US Soccer Foundation, whose programs are dedicated to supporting underserved communities through sports-based youth development. While I initially hoped to donate the jerseys to them for distribution, I learned that their donation distribution had been paused. Mr. Luizaga was incredibly helpful, providing me with contact information for organizations that might be interested in receiving the jerseys. Dazzle Africa promptly responded to my emails and expressed interest. Mr. Luizaga also advised me to focus on obtaining team jerseys, as they would have a greater impact. However, securing team jerseys proved to be more challenging. I thought that with the economic crisis in Lebanon, some stores might be willing to donate team jerseys for a small fee. Although it was a good idea, it was not easy to accomplish. After negotiations, I managed to secure six teams’ jerseys from one vendor by splitting the cost. Of course, I needed to figure out how to raise the money for my share. I decided to cook and sell crepes and burgers with a Peruvian sauce, setting up a stand.
Why did you choose to provide soccer donations to Zambians through Dazzle Africa?
Mr. Luizaga provided me with the names of a few organizations to contact, and Dazzle Africa was the first to respond promptly and with great enthusiasm. Ms. Nancy Law, from Dazzle Africa, reached out to me and shared pictures of soccer teams both with and without soccer gear. These images left a lasting impression on me. Ms. Law also shared their mission, which deeply resonated with me. Dazzle Africa supported village soccer teams in Zambia, specifically children who had a passion for soccer but lacked the means to afford proper gear. These were the same kind of kids who had invited me to play with them in Lebanon and had inspired me to create Jersey for a Smile. Without the assistance of Dazzle Africa, I would have never been able to reach these deserving children. That’s why I chose Dazzle Africa as the organization to donate the jerseys to. I am immensely grateful to Dazzle Africa for accepting the jerseys and taking them all the way to Zambia, contributing to the mission of Jersey for a Smile, and bringing smiles to the faces of these young soccer players while offering them hope for a brighter future.
How many uniforms have you donated?
600 Jerseys which were put in luggage to donate between Peru, Chile, Brazil and Lebanon
120 uniforms (short & Jersey) to a total of 6 teams
20 uniforms per team which were donated to Dazzle Africa
Do you think a soccer uniform can help change a young person’s life?
Absolutely. Wearing a soccer uniform goes beyond simply playing a game on a field. It carries a deeper meaning and signifies a responsibility towards one another and our communities. Soccer is a universal language, a language that holds immense power to unite people worldwide. It is a language understood by everyone, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers. When we put on a soccer uniform, we become part of a global community, initiating conversations, fostering engagement, and teaching players valuable lessons on leadership, avoiding negative influences, and utilizing their skills to make positive impacts around them. The soccer uniform becomes a catalyst for meaningful discussions and serves as a platform to inspire change for a better future. As soccer players, we are not only representatives of the game but also products of an educational system that instills empathy, promotes kindness towards others, and teaches us how to be active contributors to our communities. Wearing a soccer uniform signifies our commitment to those values and our dedication to making a positive difference both on and off the field.
How did you feel when you sent out your first donations?
I had a big smile on my face for days. I was happy to know that the little initiative I took made kids on the other side of the world happy.
How can people help your cause?
Jersey for a Smile is just one example of the numerous initiatives that have the power to inspire individuals to make a difference in the lives of those with limited resources. It is essential to raise awareness about the needs present in various communities worldwide, particularly in supporting children who face challenges due to limited resources. By spreading the word, we can instill hope within these children, assuring them that they are not alone in this world and that there are people who genuinely care. I strongly encourage people to connect with Dazzle Africa, a remarkable organization, and support their cause. Dazzle Africa played a crucial role in enabling me to reach out to the community in Zambia and contribute to the lives of young soccer players. Together, we can create a network of support and bring positive change to communities in need.