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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
West and East play Friday, March 23, 2012. West won 3-2.
My parents told me their story. They wanted us to have a better life. They wanted to see our faces happy all the time. —Hassan

SALT LAKE CITY — Sept. 9, 2005, marked the beginning of a new life.

It was a day that senior forward Hassan "A.J." Osman from the East High soccer team will likely never forget. After six long years in a refugee camp in Kenya, he began his journey to the United States.

Osman's family fled Somalia in 1999, eight years after the government had been overthrown and thousands of civilians had been displaced, wounded, and killed as part of the Somalia genocide.

Osman, one of three African immigrants on the East team, was relieved to leave behind the "fighting and shooting" taking place in the war torn country, though he was also forced to leave behind his friends and grandparents.

"My parents told me their story," Osman explained. "They wanted us to have a better life. They wanted to see our faces happy all the time." Osman was filled with emotion as he described his final day with his friends.

"They mean a lot to me. Even when I didn't have brothers, they were showing me love. When I left on the bus I was just crying because I was going to miss them."

Osman was playing soccer when he heard his friends yelling his name excitedly with the news that would change everything. His family was on the list of those able to be placed in the United States.

Five days later, he was on an airplane for the very first time — an experience he described as "exciting and scary." Osman, his parents, and three sisters were placed in Salt Lake City where they currently reside, though the family has grown, adding two younger brothers for Osman.

According to East assistant coach Ahmed Hussein, also a refugee from the Kakuma camp in Kenya, the system is set up in a way that refugee's pay back their airfare over time upon their arrival in the states.

The two other varsity players on the East High team, Abdi Iftin (Hassan's cousin) and Faysal Abdi, traveled to the U.S. in 2005 as well. All four share similar experiences and are grateful for a chance at a better education, the opportunity of playing soccer in college, and ultimately a better life here in Utah.

Coach Hussein came to the United States with his grandmother after living in a war zone from 1992 to 1996, and several refugee camps throughout Kenya until 2001.

"No person could survive where I lived," he said, explaining his grandmother's choice to flee. "There were a lot of people dying. I would see people die and get shot right in front of me."

Hussein described a scene of corruption, where policeman would steal straight from civilian's pockets, sending them to jail if they refused. He watched malaria take his cousin's life in a week's time and saw starvation rob others of their loved ones.

At the age of nineteen, coach Hussein was finally able to make his way to the United States, where he worked as a cashier at the airport. In 2003 he began working with other refugees, helping them settle in and adjust to the new lifestyle.

Working multiple jobs, he was eventually able to bring the majority of his family to the United States.

As both Osman and Hussein noted, the adjustment to an entirely new culture is far from easy.

"I was just a kid with a soccer ball in my hand," Osman said. "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."

Osman listened intently on the first day of school, hearing the other children say "yes" when their names were called. He followed suit, and relied on the words "yes" and "no" for a time before he was better able to grasp the language.

He bettered his English by watching cartoons and emphasized the importance of hard work.

"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."

Abdi agreed. "I'm doing my best to keep up," he said. "You have to stay in school, stay out of trouble and do your work."

Both praised head coach Rudy Schenk and credited a portion of their successful transition to playing soccer for the Leopards.

"I love coach Rudy," Osman said. "He tells us whenever we lose a game; 'put that game behind you guys. Don't think about the past.' He tells us to play like champions and we play like champions."

According to Schenk, Osman, Iftin and Abdi have really bonded with their teammates. The entire team has learned to appreciate the cultural differences and have really enjoyed learning about one another.

The boys introduced the team to African food at a recent party, and the coaches allowed a barefoot practice with a ball similar to the one the three played with over in Kenya — a ball consisting of a balloon wrapped in cloth.

All three boys aspire to attend college, with the possibility of playing soccer. "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."

email: jwilde@desnews.com