Few people look back on their lives and feel as if their teenage years were easy. Forced to deal with pressure in the classroom, pressure to conform while identifying the seeds of their own personal values, pressure to fill the prescribed roles of American culture, the pre-teen and teenage years that span middle school and beginning of high school are difficult for practically all Americans to navigate.
Now imagine trying to deal with all of that while still adjusting to a new country, without speaking English. Incredibly that's what a trio of soccer stars for Salt Lake (Utah) East High have pulled off, thriving in a new country away from the struggles of Somalia, where they were born in the midst of civil war.
As profiled in detail by the Deseret News, Hassan "A.J." Osman, his cousin Abdi Iftin and Faysal Abdi have emerged as bedrock contributors for East's impressive soccer program, which is itself led in part by another Somalian refugee, assistant coach Ahmed Hussein. Osman, Ifton and Abdi all arrived in Salt Lake City from a Kenyan refugee camp in 2005, with all three forced to feel their own way through what was at best a startling transition from near constant danger in Somalia and destitution in Kenya to a safe, near middle class existence in Utah.
According to Osman, one of the largest difficulties in that transition came from the English language. The teenager used only "yes" and "no" to communicate for the first few weeks after arriving in the U.S. and starting school, eventually picking up the language thanks to -- you guessed it -- American cartoons.
"I was just a kid with a soccer ball in my hand," Osman told the News. "I didn't know anybody. All I saw [were] white kids. I asked myself, 'what is going on? There is nobody my color here, nobody understands my language."
Now that he has settled, Osman is intent on learning as much as he can, hopefully eventually in a university setting. All three native Somalian players on the East squad hope to eventually attend college, possibly to play soccer if they are lucky enough to get attention from a college program.
Until then, they will continue to learn as much as they can while also serving as a sort of cultural emissary to other teens about what it is like to live in modern-day Africa. At one practice in May the entire team held a barefoot practice, where players competed using a ball like the one that Osman, Ifti and Abdi grew up with in Kenya: A balloon covered in cloth. The trio also hosted a team party to introduce players to African food.
Yet, no matter what the soccer ball they play with is made of, Osman made it clear that he wouldn't take his eye of the ball of his personal goal of improving his life through the highest level of education he can get.
"It's good going to school and getting a good education rather than working on the street," Osman said. "Going to college … it can change your life.
"You have to go to school and get your education. You can't just sit at home, watch TV and be lazy. I want a better life for me and I want a better life for my kids."