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Somali Teen Refugees Play to Win

Sep 21, 2018

Blog Post

Sharon Samber, HIAS.org

Teenage Somali refugees play as a brand new team.

(JFSWM)

There are many rules in sports, but every now and then if you throw away the playbook you might just end up with a winning strategy. That is essentially what happened with a group of teenage refugee Somali Bantu basketball players this summer.

With a coach who had never coached basketball before and a team that had never played together before, the changes over the last two months have been sudden, startling--and perhaps most exciting--successful.

It all started in June when HIAS’ affiliate Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts saw the boys, who they had known for years and had came from southern Somalia as 5-8 year olds, were now large teenagers, ages 15-20. Thousands of Somali Bantus had escaped war and famine and come to the U.S. between 2003-2007, with some resettling in New England.

The teens did not have enough to do and needed some structured activity, so JFSWM met with parents, sent out a survey, discovered the interest in sports was great, and thus a basketball team was born.

The team was barely set up before Adan Abdi, the JFS’ family support specialist, met a friend who told him about a tournament in Roxbury, Mass. that was to take place in just two weeks. This tournament was a 3-day national gathering of Somali youth basketball teams and some participants were coming from as far away as Toronto and Maine. Even though the group had not even practiced once, Abdi signed them up.

“I thought it would be a really good boost for the boys,” he said.

JFSWM sprang into action: flash fundraising of several hundred dollars to cover everything from jerseys to gas to food. The staff was up the night before making sandwiches, and Abdi drove the van early the next morning.

There was a reason for the quick reaction. Both Abdi and Sara Bedford, the New American Program Director for JFSWM, felt the tournament had the potential to be a turning point. They knew that lately some of the teens were a little unhappy and acting out a little, and Abdi and Bedford were concerned.

When they arrived in Roxbury with only one hour of practice under their belts, the boys were something of a motley group, 10 kids who didn’t have any kind of strategy or experience playing together as a team. Confused, they lost the first game. But they regrouped. The referees saw them struggling and explained a few things, and the next thing they knew they won their second game 47-41. They returned the next day and lost in an elimination round, but it seemed everyone was proud.

Now, there are regional pick up games. The boys have bonded. They have been practicing every weekend. One player texted to the group, “Let’s make this thing into something big for us.” They want to join a youth basketball league.

“They are on fire,” Abdi said.

The Somali Bantu girls in the the area want to form a soccer team. JFSWM wants to make sports programs something that the kids can depend on but are also thinking of ways to support the teens, help them come together, and foster leadership.

“We are using sports as one avenue,” Bedford said. “We don’t know what can come next.”