Saturday, May 9, 2015

Team of Dreams

East African All Stars 16

I spent six months following a group of Somali teenagers around. They've been fighting to build a community, to do good even as bad stalks their neighborhoods. Of course, choosing the right path isn't one decision. It's a daily commitment. Sometimes they falter. The story ran a few weeks ago in the Oregonian. Here's a preview:

Mohamed Juma stormed away, memories of sand and civil war still burning inside him.

Back in Kenya, where the Somali teenager lived in refugee camps for 16 years, other boys used to huddle around a cellphone watching YouTube videos of LeBron James. They told Juma, who towered over them at 6-foot-5, that he should go to America and play basketball.

He did. Juma and his family moved to Portland in 2013, and he was soon discovered by the East African All Stars, a makeshift team of teenage boys who played on an elementary school court with rusted rims and tattered nets. Juma's new teammates bought him hamburgers and tennis shoes. Together, they won a city championship and earned support from nonprofit and civic leaders, adults who understood how easy it was for African immigrants to feel adrift in their new homeland and how disappointment can lead boys down dangerous paths. The All Stars, Portland's mayor and police believed, were an answer to the threats facing Juma and other young men.

Yet for Juma, every victory seemed to bring new frustrations. The desert should have been a distant dream, but the good fell away so easily.

This winter, after a squabble about respect and possession time, Juma decided he’d had enough. Later, none of the boys could explain precisely why they had been fighting. All Juma knew for sure was that his best friends had disrespected him.

“If this team doesn’t need me, I quit,” he said.

He trudged home to the crowded East Portland apartment he shares with his mother and seven siblings. He washed and folded the uniform Nike had donated to the team at the mayor’s request.

In the end, adults can do only so much. A boy’s friends define him and his future path. They’re the only choice a young man such as Juma gets to make.


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