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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
From near and far – emphasis on far – Highland High School has a boys soccer program whose roster is a veritable United Nations.
The players have journeyed to Albuquerque from an island in the Caribbean. From various points in Mexico. From Asia. And from locales – Kampala, Bujumbura, Kinshasa, Kigoma, and Yaounde among them – that would neatly fill out an “African Cities” category on an episode of “Jeopardy!”
“We call ourselves ‘The Family,'” said Angela Williams, the community liaison at Highland. “We look after each other.”
To say that the Hornets’ soccer teams have an international flavor to them would scarcely do the school justice. Sprinkled throughout the varsity and junior varsity, Highland has players from no fewer than nine countries (and 10 if you count this one).
Overall at Highland, there are students from no fewer than 23 countries. From the Hornets’ varsity and JV, there are 15 foreign-born players and 17 American-born players, coach Nick Madrid said.
“We have many players, although they’ve played soccer for most of their lives, they’ve never had any formal coaching, or much structure from a team environment,” said Madrid, Highland’s first-year head coach. “That exact aspect is what creates so many of the challenges. I didn’t even realize how big a of a challenge that was going to be.”
The students from Africa are, largely, refugees who fled the continent due to things like poverty and war. Williams said there are 64 refugee students at Highland, more than any other public high school in the city, and collectively they speak over two dozen languages.
“Instead of refugees, we call them newcomers,” said Williams, herself German-born.
All of the foreign-born players speak multiple languages; several speak at least three tongues.
One player said both languages he speaks are English. Explanation on that forthcoming.
And consider that during any particular game, the odds are good that multiple languages will be heard among the players on the field.
“It is really confusing,” said Nigel Mwamba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an 18-year-old senior defender for the Hornets.
“It’s complicated,” added 15-year-old junior Brandon Okumu, a JV midfielder from Nairobi, Kenya. “When you ask for the ball, it’s ‘hey, hey, hey!’ or ‘ya ya ya!’ ”
Highland’s record this season is 5-6. The Hornets were a state quarterfinalist in Class 6A last season.
Spanning the globe
Uganda, Burundi, Antigua and Barbuda, Mexico and the Congo are countries represented on Highland’s varsity. From the JV, you will find players from Syria, Tanzania, Kenya, Mexico and Cameroon.
Armelle Begoto and Fabrice Nambona are brothers from Yaoundé, Cameroon.
“All the family have different last names,” said Nambona. Other family members, like uncles or cousins, he said, name a new baby.
They arrived in New Mexico 21 months ago as refugees knowing nothing about this state or their new city.
“When I came to school here, I had nobody to speak French to,” Nambona said. He also speaks Sango, a more local dialect. He is a student, and student aide, in a French class at Highland.
While Nambona has been playing soccer for many years, his brother only took up the sport a couple of years ago. The American-based team concepts of soccer are radically different from the environment in Cameroon.
“Here, when you miss practice, they don’t beat you,” Nambona said. “If you miss practice (in Cameroon), they beat you with a stick.”
Players of his social status, anyway.
“Rich kids in Cameroon give the coach a lot of money so they don’t get hit,” he said.
For Mwamba, from Kinshasa, the largest city in the Congo, “too much war and stuff,” he said, describing how his family came to be relocated to the States, which first involved a move to Zimbabwe. “The situation wasn’t really good. My dad sold everything we had to make it to Zimbabwe.”
While Mwamba speaks three languages – English, French and Swahili – and misses some of the creature comforts of home, he has come to enjoy this chance to play organized soccer. And to sample New Mexico’s famously diverse cuisine; he has developed a hankering for enchiladas, for example.
“I was, like, ‘Wow, this thing doesn’t look familiar,’ ” he said with a smile.
A new home
As with so many of these Hornets, soccer in their home country lacked the type of structural support seen here, and certainly there were no fields or parks similar to what they have access to at schools in Albuquerque.
Claude Nsabimana, a senior midfielder/forward from Kampala, Uganda, that country’s capital city, spoke of days when he and his friends had to literally make a soccer ball, much of it out of plastics. Including condoms.
“We could play in the streets most of the time,” Nsabimana said. “We had no money.”
“If somebody gets a ball,” said Mwamba, sitting nearby and listening in, “we just start playing.”
Of course, Nsabimana said, one of the tricks was to keep the makeshift ball confined to the street. If it got launched into somebody’s yard, or over a fence, there was a serious risk that “somebody would steal it. We stop the game.”
Brandon Okumu’s father moved to Boston from Nairobi, Kenya, some 15 years ago, and later took up residence in Albuquerque. The family remains split between the U.S. Southwest and eastern Africa. Brandon lives with his father, aunt and brother, but his mother and sister still live in Nairobi.
Okumu, who can converse in English, Swahili and Kisii, spoke lovingly of playing soccer in Kenya, starting at age 2.
For him, much like Nsabimana, it was necessary to fashion a soccer ball out of whatever materials presented themselves. In his case, mattress stuffing – to give the ball some bounce – then covered in paper and thread.
“They (the balls) are expensive. We just didn’t have the money to get it,” said Okumu, a junior midfielder on the JV who plans to remain in this country after he graduates from Highland. He intends to become an ophthalmologist.
Ibrahim Al Rahmoun and Abdulfatah Al Alwan are juniors on the Highland JV and cousins who came to New Mexico from Idlib, a city in war-torn Syria.
Arriving in Albuquerque, and at Highland, came with obstacles.
“My first day, I don’t know how to say, ‘How do I go to the bathroom?’ ” Al Rahmoun said with a smile.
Syria also had a dearth of soccer balls, the cousins said. So they improvised.
“We use basketballs, volleyballs just to play,” Al Rahmoun said. “No shoes.”
In America, Al Alwan said, it has taken some time to absorb the concept that there are certain governing principles in this sport.
“You have to follow the rules,” he said, smiling. He said he had to be informed what an offsides call was. “I don’t know what that is!”
Closer to N.M.
Michael Stephens showed up to the photo shoot for this story in a Rio Rancho High T-shirt. But there’s an explanation. Stephens, a senior forward from St. John’s in Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean, used to attend school there.
He is the aforementioned player who speaks two versions of English, including, he said, a type of shorthand English around the house.
“In a way that Americans can’t understand,” he said with a big smile. “You’d be lost.”
At Highland, the Mexico-born players hail from cities like Mexico City, Monterrey, Tijuana and Juarez.
“Even though we are from different parts of the world,” said Omar Gurrola, a junior forward from Tijuana, “we find a way to communicate with each other on the pitch.”
Indeed, the general language barrier that exists at Highland is an ongoing issue for coach Madrid, and even for some of his players as they converse with each other.
“All the time,” Madrid replied when asked if he sometimes has no clue what his players are saying.
At a recent team meeting, Madrid said some of his players preferred to speak in their first and more comfortable language, where they are more fluent.
“And another of their teammates will translate into English for me,” he said. “That is just part of how our team operates. It’s crazy.”
Ebuela Shindano of Kigoma, Tanzania, exemplifies Highland’s myriad cultural dilemmas.
“It was very hard for me (when I moved here), because I didn’t speak good English. I still don’t speak English very well.”
To that end, this remains an open-ended query: How does a new coach create a team culture when the individuals he’s coaching come from so many other cultures themselves?
Through some frustration and even occasional exasperation, Madrid said he is thankful for a shot to try to crack this puzzle, which is equal parts geographic and sociological.
“I’m grateful for this diversity and adversity and these unfamiliar changes,” said Madrid, a 2007 St. Pius X graduate and former Sartans standout on the pitch. “The best aspect without a doubt is the challenge I get to face from all of this, and learning how to get through all of this and learning how to use all of this to make me better. … At times, it’s gotten extremely difficult, but I still go to bed at night and wake up grateful for these opportunities.”
Appreciative is a sentiment that could also apply to many of Highland’s players – kids who’d never be afforded the chance to play organized soccer were they still living in their home countries.
As he looked out at Highland’s playing field – artificial turf, but nevertheless a considerable upgrade from what he grew up on – Nsabimana reflected on his humble roots in Cameroon.
“I achieved my dreams, playing on these fields,” he said. “I don’t make plastic balls no more.”
Foreign-born soccer players at Highland
Claude Nsabimana, Kampala, Uganda
Bienvenu Masudi, Bujumbura, Burundi
Michael Stephens, St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda
Nigel Mwamba, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Diego Ayala, Mexico City
Luis Romero, Monterrey, Mexico
Osman Orta, Juarez, Mexico
Ibrahim Al Rahmoun, Idlib, Syria
Abdulfatah Al Alwan, Idlib, Syria
Ebuela Shindano, Kigoma, Tanzania
Brandon Okumu, Nairobi, Kenya
Omar Gurrola, Tijuana, Mexico
Edgar Garcia, Juarez, Mexico
Fabrice Nambona, Yaoundé, Cameroon
Armelle Begoto, Yaoundé, Cameroon