Young boys don’t normally have to make big decisions, but when Ashkan Khosravi was 14 years old, he knew it was time to make one that would change his life.
For the love of soccer, he left home.
Denied a chance to play the game in his homeland of Iran because he was not Muslim, Khosravi and his sister took a three-day train ride to Turkey and lived as refugees for nearly a year and a half until they could fulfill the necessary requirements to come to the United States.
It was a long and tedious journey, but he has no regrets. Khosravi, 19, is a freshman goalkeeper on UC Riverside’s unbeaten soccer team, which this season earned its first national ranking.
Five years ago, Khosravi never would have envisioned himself living in California or playing college soccer. His life was in Iran with his parents. But as a non-Muslim, he was not allowed to play on his country’s national team. Club soccer was also out.
“I just wanted to play,” he said. “I couldn’t do it in my country, so I had to get out. That was the biggest reason I left.”
An easy decision? Not at age 14. Khosravi had a long way to go – from Iran to Turkey to his intended destination of the United States, where his brother, an electrical engineer in Dallas, would sponsor him.
It was his only route to the freedom he needed to pursue his dream, so he took it.
“He’s a very mature individual,” Junior Gonzalez, UC Riverside’s soccer coach, said. “He’s been through a lot in his life. He’s had to deal with a lot of adversity.”
You don’t prepare for life as a refugee. Khosravi lived in Turkey for 15 months waiting for the process to play out so he could emigrate to the US. He was told where he could live, was required to report to the local police station and wasn’t permitted to play organized soccer.
He was essentially in a holding pattern, hopeful he would be allowed to leave but never certain when, or if, it might happen.
“That was the hardest part,” he said. “You’re a refugee in Turkey, and you have to do the stuff that refugees do. You can’t live in the big cities. You have to live in the cities they assign you to live in. You have to go to the police station every day so that they know you’re there. It’s a long walk; you can’t drive. You obviously don’t have a lot of money, and you’re so limited.
“It’s a year and a half of living and doing nothing. You can’t do anything. You can’t go to school. I couldn’t play soccer. I had to just go to the park and run by myself and make sure I was in shape.”
To get out of Turkey and into the US, he had to wait for a call that would lead to interviews. If you passed the first interview, it led to a second, which included a three-day medical test. To pass the time, he walked the streets and practiced his English.
Eventually, the call came that he and his sister could join their brother Kash in Dallas.
“It was amazing,” Ashkan said. “It was the best feeling ever.”
His ability to play soccer served as an entrée at Plano West High School. It earned him immediate acceptance despite his birth country and its political opposition to the US.
“When I got to high school, it took me two weeks to get on the team,” he said. “I was the best player on the team, and everybody knew me by the first month, so I had a lot of friends from soccer. Everything worked out well for me. I didn’t have to look for friends.”
Khosravi played for the US Development Academy, and through a regional scout, Gonzalez heard he might be a good player. Having lost three senior goalkeepers to graduation, he needed someone who could step right in.
Knowing that Khosravi had youth international experience, Gonzalez flew to Dallas and got him to commit to UCR before other colleges could swoop in. The fit was perfect.
“I had other offers, but the coaches here are young, and I feel so comfortable talking to any of them, even the head coach,” Khosravi said. “It’s so good to have coaches who are also your friends. I love Riverside, and I love the support the soccer team is getting. They don’t have a football team, which is really good for us.”
Gonzalez said there’s room for growth in Khosravi’s game, but he has five shutouts in the Highlanders’ seven games and was named Big West Conference defensive player of the week for a second time this season.
“He’s met our expectations,” Gonzalez said. “The fact of the matter is, he’s made some big saves to keep us in some games. Any time you have a veteran defensive line that all buy into a freshman goalkeeper, it’s a special individual.”
Khosravi’s parents still live in Iran, but they have green cards and travel to the US a couple of times a year. Khosravi received his green card several months ago and said he intends to become a US citizen as soon as he’s eligible.
He knows there’s turmoil in the Middle East, but he avoids reading about it. He considers himself an American, if not legally then at least in spirit.
“I don’t read or pay attention to that, but I still hear some stuff,” he said of the anti-US protests occurring in the Muslim world. “I try to be as focused as possible on my soccer career. I try not to look back. … I don’t miss Iran at all, but I miss my family for sure.”
His ultimate goal is a professional soccer career, but he also hopes to one day play for the US national team. It’s something he never could have considered as a youth living in Iran, but he knows it’s a possibility now.