Gabe Massine recently took up a teaching position at an American school in Kuwait. In a year there he coached the high school boys’ junior varsity team and created a soccer academy program for 3-5th grade girls. We sat down with him to discuss how things have gone: from making the move to working through cultural barriers.
Gabe played basketball growing up and got into soccer relatively late, playing for fun in college and going through the early USSF licenses in Massachusetts before getting heavily involved in the NSCAA. Moving to Colorado, he took all of their diplomas, attended the conventions and even went to the Algarve Cup in Portugal for a few years with the Women’s National Team. As a teacher he coached high school soccer and in his spare time various club teams so has a good understanding of how the various programs work in the US. Gabe spent parts of his childhood in Kenya and Pakistan though, and says he was harboring a desire to try teaching abroad, so when the opportunity arose he jumped at the chance.
When we asked him why he chose the Middle East he explained that he had been an officer in the Air Force, stationed in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and had enjoyed both experiences. When he received a job offer from a school in Kuwait he did not have the fear that many people might have of jumping into a country so close to Iraq, Iran and in more recent times the IS. His feeling is that the country is very safe, with very few murders and no terrorism, and only the driving style being more dangerous than what he was used to back home. Kuwait has a strong economy, great links to rest of the region for travel and even a burgeoning professional soccer league so it made for a strong choice.
With so many Americans living abroad for work, a large network of American schools has developed, teaching US curriculums to American nationals, but also to local people who often intend to send their kids to university in North America and feel like starting at an American school would help them to have the right credits and background. Gabe’s school has a large majority of Arab students, primarily with English as a second language. The school is taught entirely in English and most kids have been exposed to it since a young age though, so he hasn’t had trouble not speaking Arabic. The only issues come when trying to get manual labor jobs arranged. In restaurants and other service sector areas the vast majority of people he meets are from other countries as some two thirds of the population have come from elsewhere and the minority Kuwaiti population tend to stay away from those jobs.
Kuwait has quite a broad range spectrum of what we might call liberal and conservative citizens. Specifically in this case it affects how they dress and we were interested to hear whether this had impacted the girls’ soccer program. Gabe said that generally if they were wanting to go to American school they would not be from the conservative end, so tended to be more liberal about clothing. His players wear regular soccer shorts and jerseys and very few had head scarfs. We asked whether this caused any conflict in the community and it was unclear, although the team does only play within the school grounds to avoid any issues. The boys’ teams regularly train and play games on public fields. This extends to the community as a whole, where Kuwait is one of the stricter Muslim countries, with limited availability of alcohol.
The school team play in a league with other private schools – one American and others – of which there are six in total. As the country is relatively small there is one league for everyone, but at the end of the season they fly to a tournament (last year in Abu Dhabi) to play against similar schools from other Middle Eastern countries. Gabe said that the tournament experience was fantastic and that each year it is held in a different participating country.
Unless you are reading this in Arizona, perhaps one of the biggest differences between youth soccer in Kuwait and here is the heat. Even though they don’t start training until September, the temperature stays around 110F and the fields are mostly artificial turf as grass needs a lot of help to grow in the desert. Gabe was surprised how little water the players drank (as he slowly perspired on the touchline!) but was impressed with their technical ability and tactical understanding when compared to similar high school teams he has coached here. What they lacked was the physical and mental toughness sides of the game though, giving up or working less when he would have expected more from a similar team over here.
Another difference is the weekly schedule. Although youth and professional teams play their games on Saturday, it is their equivalent of Sunday as their work week starts a day earlier. Friday has no training or games as it is their day for religious observance. From talking to the kids he was able to learn more about the culture, although it can be difficult to get too close as traditionally Arab families socialize internally. They are very friendly but getting to meet them can be a challenge. In school the kids are like any others, and he was surprised to hear that they all knew who Alex Morgan was, even though it is unlikely any US games are shown on major television channels.
Gabe spent much of the time off traveling around the region – visiting Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other neighboring countries where restrictions are more relaxed. Flights are relatively cheap and available, and there were other likeminded teachers also looking to explore. All of the school staff live in the same area, which makes it easy to hang out and make friends. Within the country he had the opportunity to visit the Grand Mosque, a wide range of museums and take in the incredible architecture; which all contributes to the overall benefits of taking the risk and living somewhere so different.
Now back for his second year, Gabe is looking at signing up for a third and comes back to the US for the summer vacations.