LEWISTON — “Shobow Saban” echoed through the halls of Lewiston Middle School from the muffled, crackling speakers.
Curious classmates looked for him in the hallways. Some swiveled in their seats if they thought he might be in their classroom.
There was a certain mystery about Saban, a scared immigrant who, along with his family, was new to Lewiston, looking for a new start.
He was learning a new language, a new culture and a new school. He was just hoping to fit in.
Soccer afforded him that opportunity.
“Without soccer, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Saban said.
Now a student in his final year at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Saban is among a growing number of students from the influx of Somali immigrants to Lewiston to have continued on to college.
“Sometimes when you’re trying to fit, you have to find some common interest,” Saban said. “Coming to Lewiston, Maine, and seeing these white kids playing soccer, that was a surprise. To meet kids my age group that appreciated soccer, that was something I could be part of. I could be part of a team and part of a whole community.”
It didn’t take long for Saban to stand out. He was the only African on his middle school soccer team. The day after a game, the school’s staff announced the results and goal-scorers over the intercom system. Saban was often mentioned, which helped introduce him to many of his schoolmates.
Many of those schoolmates became teammates as Saban navigated the Lewiston school system. He became a standout player on the high school varsity team, and helped begin an evolution in the Blue Devils’ program.
“Those four years, I can’t tell you how much it changed my life,” Saban said. “In the school and outside the school, I met so many people and soccer was my thing. It was something I was really proud to be part of.”
Lewiston was far from Atlanta, from which Saban and his family had moved. It is even farther from Somalia, from which he and his family had emigrated early in 2006. Later that year, they moved from Atlanta to Lewiston.
Saban’s story isn’t so different from the many other African kids who have arrived in Lewiston with the hope of a new beginning. They fled civil war in their homeland. They sought a new life in America. Many families lost loved ones along the way. Many lost all they had. They came to Lewiston to start over.
Some people welcomed them with open arms. Others were rude.
Mohamed Mohamed was another of those kids. He arrived in Lewiston five years earlier, in 2001. His family fled Africa earlier that year. He arrived in Maine in the winter, and, like Saban’s, the move was his second within a year.
“It was hard,” Mohamed said. “It was a struggle at first. It’s different. That’s how it is. Every time you move, you have to start over. You meet new friends. It’s a whole new atmosphere in your community. Overall, it was a great experience. The fact that I’m still here tells you that.”
While the kids around him played other sports, or played soccer to prepare for other seasons, soccer was the game Mohamed longed to play.
“Soccer is like, everything,” Mohamed said. “Growing up, that’s all we did. That’s all we played. It was very important. For me personally, it was everything. It was something to look forward to.”
Soccer was an important part of helping Mohamed fit in as well. He was one of the first Somali immigrants to establish himself on the Lewiston varsity team. Coach Mike McGraw realized that the arrival of more African kids to Lewiston would not only alter the lives of the players and affect the community, but it could effect a change in the school’s soccer program.
With change, McGraw also saw an opportunity.
“The way they play together, the way they get along, that’s the future of our cultures together in the city,” McGraw said. “Maybe adults don’t see that all the time. I still saw a lot of racism. I knew that what they did as kids could go a long way to helping our city mature a little bit more.”
McGraw arrived at practice on a sweltering August day for a preseason practice. He saw the African kids gathered together in the shade, while the white kids huddled together elsewhere in the sun.
“I brought them all together in the middle,” McGraw said. “I told them, ‘This is how it has to be. We can’t have you guys over here and you guys over here. You have to be a team.’ You should have seen some of the guys just smile. They needed to have somebody to tell them to integrate.”
Soccer was a saving grace for many of these kids and has served as testimony to the rest of the community.
“When you see all these different-colored kids that are playing together, it’s a good feeling,” Mohamed said. “Maine was never like this. Lewiston was never like this.”
Change is good
Lewiston boys’ soccer is well-established. McGraw, only the program’s second coach, often had hard-nosed, blue-collar kids that worked hard and played tough. Lewiston won a regional title in 1991 and lost to Brunswick in the state final. The Blue Devils were always a winning team, and on the cusp of being elite.
But the program struggled to compete with top level teams from Brunswick or Mt. Ararat of Topsham when it joined the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference. After 17 consecutive winning seasons for McGraw, Lewiston went 5-7-1 in 1999. The Blue Devils won just five games over the next two years, and went 5-5-3 in 2002.
In 2003, refugees from Africa began to arrive. Many were from Somalia, but some were from Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania. McGraw could see the dynamics of Lewiston soccer changing. Hamdi Naji and Mohamed Mohamed were among the first. Naji was the team MVP in 2003. Mohamed was MVP in 2004, and Lewiston went 11-2-1.
“It gradually happened,” McGraw said. “It wasn’t like, all of a sudden I had a team of 12 skilled players. It started out with one or two. Then the next year, it was four or five with a sixth or seventh coming in. Now it is about 85 percent African.
“That has allowed me to do some different things as a coach. I’ve had to go back to school coaching-wise to figure out some things. I don’t believe a coach can stay stagnant. You have to change with the personnel, in high school especially.”
Naji and Mohamed both became standout players on the varsity and were the first Somali players to earn both conference and state all-star honors.
Naji and Mohamed brought skills to the game that the Blue Devils didn’t have. They could pass, dribble and shoot effortlessly. Still, trying to integrate their game with the players around them was a challenge.
“It changed the dynamics of how we play on the field,” McGraw said. “We were a team that was not traditionally skillful, but developing skills. We were a team that played very hard with a lot of heart. We played very physical when we had to. Then we became a team that suddenly had some skill and speed, which to me was a bit of culture shock.”
In a melding of playing styles amid a clash in culture, the sport kept everyone on track.
“We were all soccer players,” said Ben Fournier, a team captain in 2003. Fournier is now the Lewiston boys’ lacrosse coach.
“We all had the same goal,” he said. “We were all practicing for the same thing, especially when you’re under Coach McGraw. It was really a smooth transition. They fit right in. We were all striving for the same thing and they worked hard.”
The team became a band of brothers, Fournier said, all trying to have success as a team.
“They were on another level in soccer,” Fournier said. “Not many could handle the ball like Naji or handle the ball like Mohamed, but we’d help each other. They’d help us with how to hit the ball and trying to do this or trying to do that. We’d help them with some of the things we were comfortable with.”
The languages were different, but the intent was the same, and the early group set the bar.
“Some of us would learn some things in Somali and they’d learn some things in English,” Fournier said. “It was pretty funny. We had some interesting practices. It was all mixed together. You had some guys yelling for the ball in Somali and some were yelling in English.”
The Blue Devils reached the Eastern Class A tournament in the fall of 2003 and lost in the preliminary round. Lewiston scored just 16 goals that year, but allowed only eight. In 2004, the Blue Devils lost in the quarterfinals, but outscored opponents 48-7.
“At times, it was tense, but thank God it worked out the way it did,” McGraw said. “We wouldn’t have had any success without a core group of Somali kids getting along with a core group of non-Somali kids. That, to me, was a great victory for our soccer program.”
Shobow Saban’s shirt grabbed Jon McDonough’s attention.
“He was always wearing an Arsenal jersey,” McDonough recalls. “Nobody else at that time really watched English Premier League. I started talking to him about that and that was something we both had in common.”
McDonough told Saban about an upcoming soccer meeting and encouraged him to attend. It was the first step of Saban’s middle school soccer experience. He soon found out there was interest in the sport in Lewiston. In Georgia, most kids his age cared about football.
“Through soccer and through Jon, I met new friends and learned about a new culture and met new people,” Saban said.
When the pair reached high school, a new wave of African players was coming through. Naji and Mohamed had long graduated, but they had paved the way for kids that wanted to achieve what they did.
“I wanted to be like them,” Saban said. “I wanted to be one of them. I didn’t want to just be like one of them, but I wanted to be respected for who they were as soccer players. So I had motivation that I wanted to do well and be like those people that played before me.”
Instead of just a few kids, a third of the varsity roster was African.
“At first, a lot of the Somali kids were skilled in soccer and it definitely helped out the program,” McDonough said. “For me, it wasn’t so much about them being Somali or not, it was just about them being people on the team. If we were open to that, then they were open to that. I think that’s what worked for us, just having an open mind about everything.”
McGraw knew how important it was to integrate and
build trust between all the players. With a greater number of African players, avoiding division was important.
“The Somali players had to learn to trust the white players, so when they passed the ball it wasn’t going to get taken away,” McGraw said. “The white players were like, ‘OK, you raised the level of our skill, we can do that.’ So they did it. It didn’t really gel until guys like the McDonoughs and the Hersis got together, or Shobow and Jon Roy.”
McGraw noticed that the number of white players trying out for the team decreased, while the number of African players increased. It wasn’t so much about race, McGraw believed.
Some of the American players were active in other sports. Soccer was just a precursor to other seasons, while soccer to the African kids meant everything.
“I really appreciated the McDonoughs and the Evan Gosselins and the Ben McDonoughs and the Eric Soucys, these guys that stuck with it,” McGraw said. “I had sweepers and defenders, and they just dug in. They were not going to be denied. They were going to play soccer in the fall. But not everybody was like that.
“It comes down to, ‘How badly do you really want it? Do you want to work hard? Do you want to make it? Do you want to show something of yourself? Are you willing to pay the price to be there?'”
The African players didn’t get a free pass onto the team, though. They had to earn their way like anyone else. One player in particular, who McGraw cut three years in a row, stuck out in the veteran coach’s mind. Despite being cut, he kept coming back.
“As a senior, I knew there was no way I was cutting this kid,” McGraw said. “He ended up becoming a particularly good player, and an important and a prime-time player, because he was persistent. He even went on to play in college.”
Trust, respect and understanding — essential life skills — bound the team as its members learned from one another. McGraw could see the team was building something greater than just a winning soccer team.
“I find that kids are more accepting than adults,” said McGraw, who said his players were the first to realize that kids are just kids. “Adults have all these years of preconceived ideas. Kids, it was about what they thought. They didn’t always agree with the adults.”
The integration of African athletes into the high school soccer program proved much smoother than the integration of the immigrant community into the city. The sharp increase of refugees and immigrants relocating to Lewiston prompted controversy.
During the early wave of immigration, Mayor Larry Raymond penned an open letter to the Somali community, urging those already in Lewiston to discourage others from relocating to the city.
“This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all,” Raymond wrote. “The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity.
“I am well aware of the legal right of a U.S. resident to move anywhere he/she pleases, but it is time for the Somali community to exercise this discipline in view of the effort that has been made on its behalf.”
The letter created an uproar in the city, and even brought a white supremacist group rally to town in support of what has become known only as “the letter.”
“I’m not going to say everything was good,” Mohamed said. “Not everybody’s friendly. You’d see people here or there that wouldn’t like you for whatever reason. But there was also lovely people that welcomed me.”
The negative comments and actions attracted most of the attention, while the acts of kindness went unnoticed.
“People pick up on the negative part of everything,” Mohamed said. “It might be so small that it sticks out. So that happened sometimes, but you have to keep going. I tried to look at the positive side.”
In a similar message, sitting Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, well known for his stance on curbing welfare fraud and forcing able-bodied people back into the workforce, ruffled feathers again in 2012, saying the large number of immigrants in Lewiston was costing the city too much money. In a documentary aired on the BBC, Macdonald said, “You (immigrants) come here, you come and you accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door.”
On the soccer team, that kind of divisiveness didn’t — and doesn’t — exist. The players came together as a group, shared a common interest and moved forward.
“We were united,” Saban said. “We were friends. We became close, people that would help each other out. Our team was really strong and tried to diminish and eliminate that hatred. We were a brotherhood as teammates. We were people who were together. We live in one city, one town, we shared everything, our school, teachers, we became united and we didn’t care what other people thought. We were brothers. We were taking care of each other. This happened through soccer.”
They talked. They communicated. They tried to learn about each other and built understanding.
“At that age, that’s the time you’re trying to discover things as a person,” Saban said. “Playing soccer with the white kids, I remember being asked a lot of questions. They were curious about my life. It was having a dialogue. I was asking them questions too.
“That’s how we learned about each other’s culture. Kids are willing to learn more about the world around them. Being curious and being inquisitive about life and asking questions was a way to get to know each other. We had a lot of conversations and that’s how we got to know each other.”
McDonough and Saban are still close friends. McDonough is studying at Boston College, where he’s taken the lessons he learned to a city that oozes diversity.
“What I learned is that you have to talk about it and not hide away from the fact that there are things you don’t understand about somebody else’s culture,” McDonough said. “If you ask them, they’ll be more than willing to tell and share their culture with you.
“That’s one thing I’ll always love about Lewiston and appreciated that I was brought up in a diverse community. So when I got here, I’m like other people that are here and we’re working together — it was just like a really easy transition.”
Passing the torch
Warming up for his varsity game, Abdibaari Hersi would often spot a young Abdi Shariff making his way to the stands.
“I’d always see him walking into the games,” Hersi said. “He’d be like, ‘Hey, get some goals tonight.’ Now I see him play.”
Hersi, among the later wave of immigrants, graduated in 2014 and now attends the Hyde School, a private, college prep school in Bath, Maine. He was an underclassman at Lewiston when Saban and McDonough were seniors. It was a smooth transition for him. The players’ bond was there when he arrived, and he now remains connected to the current team members, talks with them frequently and offers advice.
“I kind of wish I was still playing, but deep down inside, I’m really happy for them,” Hersi said. “I talk to most of them after every single game. It’s great to come back and see them winning.”
Shariff, now a leading scorer for the Blue Devils, and his teammates grew up watching players like Hersi and dreaming of their chance.
“We always came to the game together and talked through the whole game about how one day it was going to be us on the field playing,” Shariff said. “It’s a great feeling to be on the field and playing. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing and play one game at a time and keep improving.”
Their time is now.
The Blue Devils have gone 78-14-9 over the past seven years after stumbling to a 4-7-3 record in 2007. That run has included three trips to the Eastern A final and three KVAC championships.
They’ve completed the 2014 regular season at 13-0-1, and are ranked No. 1 in Eastern A. It is also the first time Lewiston has completed an unbeaten season since 1981, and just the third time ever. This team could arguably be one of the best Lewiston teams ever.
Part of the team’s cohesion stems from its familiarity with one another.
While many of the previous teams had new kids entering the program each year and had to re-establish team chemistry, this group has been doing that for years.
“Most of us played together in middle school,” Shariff said. “We have a couple of new players. That’s what’s important about this group. We grew up together. We’ve always played together. Throughout the winter, we’d go and find a place to play together. It’s a good group.”
Shariff, and many of the top players on the 2014 roster, will be back next year, hoping to build on their burgeoning legacy.
More than winning
Wins are just part of the success story. What could have been a disastrous integration has instead produced a rich community inside the school. Instead of “Us versus Them,” it has become one school, one community.
“This school’s amazing now,” said Lewiston High School
Athletic Director Jason Fuller, also a Lewiston alumnus. “This is a great place when you look at the diversity here. The things you’re faced with as a student, I don’t think the Somali population gets enough credit for those things.”
Soccer gave many of them an outlet and an opportunity.
Mohamed said it was a factor in him being able to succeed, because it kept him focused. He went to college as a result.
“It was a big part of me going to school,” Mohamed said. “Academically, I did my best. It keeps you on track. When you’re playing soccer, you have to make sure your grades are up and going well. You have something to look forward to during the day. It actually helped going through the transition of coming to a new school and learning and going through high school.”
Saban said Lewiston is his home now. He’s already active in the community, working with kids at the Trinity Jubilee Center. He wants to make Lewiston a stronger community beyond the sidelines of soccer.
“Through that, I became someone who could be a leader and responsible,” Saban said. “I was involved in the community and involved in school events. I was involved in everything I could.”
Many other African players went on to college and some have played soccer there.
“One of the things I’ve been proud of is to see them graduate and go to UMF or USM or St. Joe’s, or go to CMCC,” McGraw said. “They’ve moved on. Their parents have seen the value of an education.”
The immigrant student-athletes learned and grew from their experiences.
So did those who were born and raised in the United States. Going to each others’ homes — seeing how they were different — provided an eye-opening experience. Teammates on the field, they taught each other life-long lessons and became great friends away from the game.
“Being part of it in the beginning is really exciting,” McDonough said. “Back then you didn’t know where it was going to be headed. The majority of the team is now Somalian. I didn’t expect anything like that would happen. It makes you proud to be an alum of Lewiston High School, knowing the team is having so much success and the Somali population is doing so well. I’m proud to be part of what is going on. Each year, they set an example for a community, the school and the state.”
Lewiston soccer and the high school community has a great sense of pride in what it has accomplished. Other teams at the school — particularly in cross country running and track and field, and to a lesser extend field hockey and lacrosse, have continued the trend. African and American athletes continue to have an impact — together.
“It was learning about somebody else’s culture, which a lot of people don’t have a chance to do,” McDonough said. “I really appreciated that. You feel like your eyes are opened up to how things aren’t all like they are in your own home. When you get out there in the real world, there’s so many different ways to do things. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.”