Salvation in soccer: Dream-seeking Somali refugees reunited in U.S.
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ST. LOUIS – Sa’ad Hussein is huddled under a heated bus stop in a country where nothing makes sense. His two suitcases, which stand nearly waist-high, are tagged from Nairobi to Zurich to Atlanta to Chicago to here, St. Louis–9,300 miles of air travel over more than 24 hours. The 22-year-old refugee might as well have blasted off from East Africa into outer space.
There are friends waiting at the airport, somewhere, but Sa’ad hasn’t found them. He speaks only a few words of English, understands just a handful more, and he is freezing. It’s 51 degrees at 10 p.m. on March 21, but later, Sa’ad will say he felt as if the cold was seeping under the hood of his close-fitting black jacket and through his ears. As he waits, he considers his options. Cars–new, clean, quiet cars–are picking up passengers. He should be in the right place. But it’s been 10 minutes since he fetched his bags, so he turns to the man next to him. In what he calls “hand English,” Sa’ad points to the man’s phone and to himself. Can I borrow it? The man obliges, and Sa’ad types from memory the number of a friend he hasn’t seen in more than two years.
Inside Lambert–St. Louis International Airport, Saadiq Mohammed paces. J.R. Biersmith, a filmmaker who befriended the 20-year-old Somali soccer player in 2013, checks the arrivals board. The rest of Biersmith’s family, which has become Saadiq’s family, waits too. They walk to the TSA checkpoint, peer down the terminal. Abdirahman Jama, a Somali representative from the International Institute, a local nonprofit, scrolls through his phone. There is no sign of Sa’ad, but Biersmith, who spearheaded the effort to bring both men to the U.S., remains calm. He waited four and a half hours for Saadiq outside of customs in Miami in 2014. These things rarely go seamlessly.
One airport attendant, his interest piqued by the unlikely crew–two Somalis and five white St. Louisans–tells the family that the flight they’re waiting for arrived early. Biersmith’s sister, Jessica Herschend, begins to worry that Sa’ad, his phone rendered useless outside of Africa, got stuck in Chicago. Before she can voice her concern, though, Saadiq’s iPhone rings. An exchange in Somali ensues. “He’s outside!” Saadiq says, his deep whisper of a voice an octave higher than normal. He’s been smiling all evening as he twists his curly hair, but now he smiles, his face all lips and white teeth and wide eyes. It is finally real.
Sa’ad was born in Somalia in 1993, six months before the Battle of Mogadishu, and grew up in Afgoye, a rural farming village 18 miles northwest of the nation’s capital. He never received an education and, despite living in an agricultural center, experienced intermittent famine throughout his childhood. In 2010, a representative from the Somali national football team discovered him in a village game. He joined the squad that year, but soon after, the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which has held varying degrees of power in Somalia since 2006, captured him. The group held him for seven days, threatening death. Eventually, they whipped him publicly 38 times and released him a month before Somalia’s World Cup qualifying games. (The team failed to advance.)
Saadiq, 20, is the son of Somali parents but was born in Kenya. His father died before he can remember, and he lived an itinerant childhood. Still, he attended school, both in Nairobi, where he received an approximation of a Western education, and Somalia, where his studies focused the Quran. By the time he was a teenager, Saadiq was a talented soccer player and spoke four languages: Somali, Ethiopian, Swahili and English. He dreamed of attending college.
In 2012, Saadiq returned to Somalia to join Banadir, a professional team in Mogadishu. Sa’ad played on a rival squad, Elman, and the two met on the field.
Later that year, despite such disparate backgrounds, the two midfielders grew close at the Somali national team camp, and in 2013, when Biersmith traveled to Somalia to make a documentary about soccer in the world’s most failed state, they became his story.
They were the best players, celebrities in their own right, but they still struggled to send money to their families and faced the constant threat of arbitrary arrest both at home and abroad in East Africa, where Somalis are persecuted because of their country’s terrorist ties and checkered history.
By agreeing to participate in Biersmith’s documentary, “Men In the Arena,” Saadiq and Sa’ad put themselves at risk. The film condemns Al-Shabaab and includes footage of the men speaking against it. It also includes scenes shot at Mogadishu Stadium, the 35,000-seat venue that has not hosted an international game since before Somalia’s civil war broke out in 1986. The stadium has long been a strategic foothold in the ongoing conflict, especially after Al-Shabaab banned sport when it laid siege to Mogadishu in 2008. The stadium remained in the militants’ control until August 2011, when the Somali National Army and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) retook the space. By depicting soccer there, the film, which is slated for release in 2016, will certainly anger Al-Shabaab, which is weakened but still active in Somalia.
For Biersmith, getting Saadiq and Sa’ad out of East Africa became a priority almost immediately upon meeting them. Saadiq’s case was clearer: Because he speaks English, he was a candidate to try out for college teams in the U.S. Through a connection, Biersmith got the attention of Joe DePalo, the coach of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. DePalo, curious to see Saadiq in person, wrote a letter on his behalf, which went a long way in solidifying his application for a one-year visa.
In August 2014, Saadiq traveled to Miami, where Biersmith accompanied him to a tryout at Nova. He aced it, but in order to attend college, Saadiq would have to earn a qualifying ACT score and graduate from high school. DePalo suggested enrolling him at FC Dallas’s academy, where he’d be able to play for the U-18 team and attend school. Still, Saadiq struggled with the adjustment, and the education at the school affiliated with the academy was lacking.
Again, Biersmith intervened, pulling him out of the program in April 2015 and sending him to St. Louis, where Herschend and her husband, Jacob, agreed to take him in and tutor him for the ACT.
Within months, Saadiq had scored a 23, and when the family realized he would be ineligible to take the GED in Missouri, they enrolled him at Lift For Life Academy, a charter school from which he graduated in 2015.
He’s now taking community-college classes and awaiting a ruling from the NCAA on his amateur status. (The decision could come down at any point, and there is a precedent for players like Saadiq, who played professionally abroad for nominal amounts of money, to be cleared.) If granted, he will accept a full-ride soccer scholarship to St. Louis University.
Meanwhile, Sa’ad remained in Somalia until his escape in 2015, when he traveled to Nairobi to stay with friends of Saadiq’s while waiting to be resettled in the U.S. Because of his language limitations, Sa’ad was not a realistic candidate for a college tryout, so Biersmith went through official channels to facilitate his emigration. It was a waiting game, and Sa’ad faced hostile conditions in Nairobi, where he was unjustly arrested, struggled with the language and spent much of his life in hiding. In September, he learned he was approved for travel, and on March 9, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) sent him his arrangements–for departure not two weeks later.
Saadiq is crouched behind a trash can, not quite out of sight, but Sa’ad is too overwhelmed to notice. First, there’s Biersmith, camera rolling, hugging, laughing, so much English. Next, the rest of his family. More hugs. Names to remember. Other passengers waiting to be picked up can’t help but smile as they take it in, clueless to the arrests and the hunger and the years that have passed.
Watching the reunion unfold, Saadiq picks his moment and explodes from his hiding spot. In a blink, he and Sa’ad are hugging, holding hands, bantering in Somali. They take selfies. “Somali social media is going to blow up,” Herschend says with a smile.
Eventually, the group retreats inside. Saadiq and Sa’ad pose for more photos, showing off their beaded bracelets, each one bearing its owner’s name, the Somali flag and the stars and stripes. Soon, though, Saadiq says Sa’ad is hungry.
It’s time to to take his bags to his new apartment (provided by the International Institute, along with $900 in cash to be repaid later, English lessons and a job) and eat.
Sa’ad’s home is one half of a brick duplex on a poorly lit street in south St. Louis. Two motorcycles are parked on the sidewalk next door, and Sa’ad tells Saadiq he’d like one someday. They remind him of his motorbike back home. Inside, though, he’s a world away from East Africa. Before Sa’ad left Nairobi, he slept on a mattress on a dirty floor. Some nights, he shared it with another refugee. Here, there is a twin bed, four floral upholstered chairs, a coffee table, a television stand, a kitchen table, a dining chair, appliances. There are two living spaces, a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom. Bread, pasta, rice, sugar and other essentials await him on the table. There is an orange in the refrigerator.
“Well have this thing stocked with fruit like it’s Afgoye soon,” Biersmith declares.
The smell is musty, old potpourri mixed with sweat and dust and stale air, but no matter. This is the nicest home Sa’ad has ever known. He feels safe. He sees home. He hears quiet. Soon, he’ll taste a late dinner. Smell is a sense for the privileged.
It’s overwhelming, until it isn’t. This is where he lives now, and it is late, and life goes on. Sa’ad tells Saadiq that he is so tired, it feels like his eyes are covered in hot sauce. Jama has brought chicken and rice, but no matter how much Sa’ad wants to go to bed, he’d rather go out for a meal. The best option is a nearby Hardees, but it closed at midnight. Biersmith wonders: Should he just bring Sa’ad back to the Herschends’ home, where Saadiq still lives, for the night?
“What food is open?” he asks his phone. “Siri is terrific,” Saadiq exclaims before translating for Sa’ad, who expresses similar wonder. Siri suggests a St. Louis institution, McGurk’s, but an Irish Pub is hardly the proper course, so the group settles on a 24-hour McDonald’s nearby. Unsure of the neighborhood, Biersmith decides the drive-through is the best option, and when a disembodied voice asks what everyone would like, Sa’ad is baffled. He looks at the speaker, at Saadiq.
“Are we ordering here?” he asks through his friend. Saadiq explains that it’s like a telephone to the restaurant, that they’ll drive forward to a window, that then there will be hamburgers. “Tell him not to eat the ketchup packets plain,” Biersmith instructs Saadiq.
“No,” Saadiq replies with a chuckle. “Let’s see what he does.”
Eventually, he relays the message, which prompts Sa’ad to launch into a story in Somali. Saadiq translates. Before he left, at an IOM orientation, Sa’ad watched a video that, along with instructing him that Americans eat terribly and get fat, warned him against eating butter straight out of the packets on the airplane.
“Anyone who doesn’t know that isn’t smart enough to come to America,” he jokes to Saadiq.
Sa’ad inhales his Big Mac, fries and Coke in the car, and then it’s time to return to the apartment. Biersmith wavers about what to do. The protector in him wants to bring Sa’ad with him for the night. The realist knows it’s best that he stay at his new home. He can’t help himself, though. He asks, through Saadiq, what Sa’ad would prefer. “He wants to stay home,” Saadiq relays. “But I’m going to stay here tonight, too.”
Saadiq hasn’t been this happy in ages, Herschend says as she watches the reunion. The way his face lit up when he first saw Sa’ad, the way he immediately took his former teammate under his wing, grabbing a suitcase and explaining everything he saw–this is the real Saadiq, who is sometimes overpowered by the stresses of school and the NCAA and waiting for asylum. America can be overwhelming even for the most educated Somali, and for this reason, Saadiq worries for his friend. He knows how complicated the U.S. can seem. He remembers standing on the beach in Miami on his first day, looking at the city, feeling a terrifying wonder.
He worries, too, about Sa’ad’s background.
The older player is traditional. He will be shocked by this secular society, by clothing, by food, by music, by the Herschends’ Weimaraner, Lady. He must learn to accept his new culture rather than eschew it for what he’s always known. “You meet different people, see different cultures," Saadiq says, "and it's the only way for (people from Somalia) to get better."
In his nearly two years in the U.S., Saadiq has avoided immersing himself too much in any kind of Somali enclave. He doesn’t want St. Louis to be a slice of his home country. He left for a reason, and if he ever goes back, he wants it to be as a more knowledgeable man who can promote growth and change. At the airport, he asks Jama, who lives in a Somali community with his brother, why he doesn’t enroll in classes to better his English. At the grocery store on Sa’ad’s first morning in St. Louis, Saadiq eyes the cart. Jama fills it, and Saadiq removes items. A bag of onions is too many, even if it would be necessary for Somali cooking. A small bottle of Naked juice is frivolous. He can get a giant carton of orange juice for half that price. Saadiq shakes his head, gestures toward Jama with a smile. “He is still Somali,” he says. “I will make (Sa’ad) American.”
The goal, eventually, is to get Sa’ad a tryout with a USL or MLS team. Saadiq says he knows his friend can play at the highest level of the game in the U.S. But first he must learn English and train. Logistical questions loom: How far will that initial $900 stretch? Will the job the Institute arranges be sufficient to pay rent and repay that debt plus the cost of his air travel? Less practical worries also plague Saadiq, Biersmith and Biersmith’s family. There’s no way to know how the transition will wear on Sa’ad, how lonely he’ll be, how he’ll fare in a somewhat rough neighborhood, a bus ride away from his friend. Negotiating the line between dependent and capable, lonely and coddled, will take time.
Grappling with what Sa'ad and Saadiq represent in Somalia is even tougher. They had to leave, but if every smart, good-hearted young man does just that, how will the country move forward? If the two find successful soccer careers in the U.S., Biersmith doesn’t want their message back home to be that the only way to make a life is to escape–especially when escaping can mean dangerous passages, drowning or imprisonment.
Perhaps Saadiq and Sa’ad can share a different message: We left so you don’t have to. They can send money, educate the world about Somalia, do on-the-ground work with resources they’d never have had without soccer abroad. It’s a lofty dream, but it’s better than imagining a life in which these men never see their families again, save their grainy likenesses on the screens of their phones.
On his first morning in St. Louis, Sa’ad wants to walk around his neighborhood in the light of day. He needs a sense of place that midnight does not offer. “Ask him if he knew where he was when he woke up this morning,” Biersmith instructs Saadiq. “I’m not crazy!” Sa’ad replies, incredulous. He’s been dreaming of this for months.
In their outfits from the night before, Sa’ad and Saadiq take off on foot to explore. The dogwoods are blooming, the temperature is creeping toward 70 degrees, and not two blocks away, the two find a soccer field at Marquette Park. The grass needs mowing, and Sa’ad needs a ball and shin guards. Soon enough, though, he’ll be playing.
Back on the apartment stoop, Sa’ad reaches out to hand his keys to Biersmith, who will not accept. “Tell him it’s his apartment,” the filmmaker instructs Saadiq, “so he can open the door.” Saadiq translates. Sheepishly, Sa’ad walks up the concrete steps and lets the group in.
A few hours later, after the grocery store and a home-cooked chicken lunch, Saadiq takes Sa’ad to Forest Park, a 1,371-acre urban park near the Herschends’ home. It’s not been 18 hours since airplane hit tarmac, but there they are, doing crunches, training. This is Sa’ad’s only free week before English lessons and work begin, so there’s not a moment to waste, and it’s hard to say who’s more impatient to begin. Sa’ad has been cut off from the game for months. He’s hungry. But only Saadiq knows that the sport that brought them to this country can also make it home.