Micheal Azira is a man of uncommon motivation.
This week, the Chicago Fire midfielder formally launched his foundation’s digital presence, going live with new social media handles and a website for parties seeking volunteer or donation opportunities.
The organization -- now formally recognized as the Azira Micheal Youth Foundation -- can be found on Twitter at @aziramicheal, on Instagram at @aziramichealyouth, and online at aziramichealyouthfoundation.org.
Going from a small online presence to running a branded social media account is a new challenge for the 33-year-old, but so far he’s been overwhelmed by the show of support from teammates and followers.
“When I got to the locker room, everyone was like, ‘Micheal, your Instagram was on fire. What’s going on?’” He laughed. “The locker room has been really great about it. All my teammates have been really supportive and the coaches as well. It’s been great, man. I’m truly thankful.”
This week’s launch represents the latest step in what has been an on-going project for Azira, whose goal has long been to use football as a tool to promote education in his home country of Uganda. His organization’s biggest endeavor - the Pearl of Africa Youth Tournament - began in 2018 and hosted nearly a thousand local players in Kampala, the country’s capital. The second, in 2019, brought in 1,500 local participants.
Beyond the tournament itself, Azira and his team believe their newfound digital presence will help supplement their year-round work to secure gear donations, temporary housing, and meals for each of the event’s participants. It’s the latest in a line of accomplishment for the ambitious father of two, who -- while training daily alongside his Fire teammates -- is also in the process of earning his MBA from Southern New Hampshire University.
“If you find something that you love to do, that you’re passionate about, I think that gives you energy,” he said. “You get to devote more time to the things you care about - my family, my career, my tournament, our foundation, and then my school. I want to finish my school, as I was the only kid in my family to ever get an education. My parents are really proud of me for that. It’s something that I do for myself as well. I want to improve myself and grow each and every day to make myself better and also to help other people as much as I can.”
"Mike is a great guy," head coach Raphael Wicky added. "I speak with him often, not only about football; we speak about experiences, we speak about life a little bit. You can feel that he's a guy who wants to give something back. It shows the personality he is that he obviously was able to live his dream making a living out of what he really loved to do when he was a kid, and now wants to give something back to other kids, to other people, and that is really nice."
Like many other things, COVID-19 has put a halt on the 2020 iteration of the Pearl of Africa Youth Tournament. However, Azira’s plans only get bigger as he looks to the future. Providing education and opportunities for Ugandan youth remains at the forefront of the foundation’s mission, but curbing homelessness is another issue he believes their initiatives can help with as their footprint expands.
“If you look at one of the pictures on my page, you see the kids I’m seated with,” he said. “Those kids -- I found out that 42 of them live in two small bedrooms. I was really touched by that. I was like, ‘What can I do to help? What can I do to help these kids so they can have a bed, just a bed to themselves?’ Two kids were sharing a tiny bed and some of them were sleeping on the floor. So what can I do with the platform that I have?”
Relying strictly on facility and housing rentals to put on his foundation’s main event in the past, he hopes that the foundation’s digital efforts will help his goal of giving the tournament and its participants a home of its own.
“We want to have our own place where kids can live,” he said. “They have a bed, they have a field. We can invite other teams to join us where we can be able to motivate them and give them a place where they can be kids. A place where they can just wake up, be kids, go to school, play soccer, and learn other skills. It can be carpentry, it can be computers, it can be coding. We just want to have our own home.”
“Some kids go without meals,” he added. “We need to continue to do this, where kids get a chance to have a meal each and every day. So, that’s one of the reasons I’m now pushing us to have our own place, where kids can have a meal. We can have our own farm where food comes from. We’re in the process of securing land as we continue to be supported by other people through donations.”
Himself once a Ugandan youth looking to make his football dream come true, Azira hopes his story will continue to serve as inspiration for the youth his foundation serves. His reverence for the people who have helped him along the way and his dedication to paying that assistance forward continue to drive him philanthropically. Among those people is Ken Davies, the man who helped facilitate Azira’s move to the United States upon receiving an athletic scholarship to Lindsey Wilson College. Azira spoke about Davies at length in an article for The Players’ Tribune in June.
“When I went back to ask him, ‘How could I ever pay you back?’ He told me, ‘You don’t have to pay me back. All you’ve got to do is to reach another kid.’ So that has greatly inspired me to share the little that I have with other people. People have always helped me to get here.”
While both remain a work in progress, those with interest in contributing to Azira’s efforts are encouraged to reach out to the foundation through both the web site and social media. Alongside monetary contributions, Azira hopes to open up on-site volunteer programs in Uganda, as well as opportunities to sponsor tournament participants in the near future.
“These are things we want to work on,” he said. “We want to create a home for the kids, where they can be kids and where they don’t have to be strict about life. They need to be kids and pursue their dreams and pursue their education. These are the things we want to continue to work on - to create responsible future leaders and future players. Maybe there will be another Azira in MLS? You never know.”