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Finding their footing in a new land
By Dani Mcclain
31 March 2007
Members of the Somali-Bantu Young Brothers soccer team celebrate a goal during a recent game at Uihlein Soccer Park. The team competes in league playoffs today.
The Somali-Bantu Young Brothers have dominated recent soccer opponents with victories of 30-2 and 14-3.
But the team's members, who are in their late teens and early 20s, aren't cocky as they head into their league's playoff games today at Uihlein Soccer Park.
"I'm not saying that we're going to win. We're going to see on the pitch," said 18-year-old Sharif Abdikadir, using the British term for field.
Abdikadir plays on Wauwatosa West High School's varsity soccer team. But in the off-season, he's a member of the Somali-Bantu Young Brothers, which is seeded third in the high school boys indoor league that closes its season today.
The Young Brothers are refugees from eastern Africa, where they were a persecuted ethnic minority in their native country of Somalia. More than 250 Somali-Bantu families have settled in the Milwaukee area in the past several years, sometimes after first living in other U.S. cities. Some Young Brothers moved from places such as Charlotte, N.C., Rochester, N.Y., or Amarillo, Texas. An established refugee community drew them here.
Though much of the initial culture shock has passed, the community's young men still face challenges, from clashes with American peers to balancing the pressures of school and work.
Through years of transitions from war-torn Somalia to Kenyan refugee camps to southeastern Wisconsin, the soccer field has given them a place to nurture their friendships and feel at home.
Coming to America
Abdishakur Ali, 18, is on South Division's varsity soccer team and plays a mix of forward, fullback and goalie. He said he admires his school teammates' skills, but they sometimes hold the ball for too long, dribbling when a clean pass would be better.
But his compatriots know how to finesse the ball.
"They pass nice and neat," he said.
Their collaboration extends beyond the field. Many come from the same Somali city and have known each other for more than a decade.
His family's four-bedroom house near N. 40th St. and W. Lisbon Ave. is a step up from other places they've lived in Milwaukee: apartments with no heat and broken windows, where boiling water was a prerequisite to taking a bath.
At home, Ali's the lone man among his mother and two younger sisters. An older sister, brother-in-law and nieces and nephews live nearby.
His part-time job doing laundry for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare helps cover household expenses. His mother, Fatumah Ibrahim, holds the same job full-time and takes English as a Second Language classes.
When Ali was 4 years old, his family walked most of the way from the city of Jilib in southern Somalia to the Dadaab refugee camp just over the Kenyan border in an effort to escape their native country's civil war.
Catholic Charities resettled the family in Charlotte, N.C., in November 2004. But talks with Somali-Bantu families who had settled in Milwaukee convinced Ali's mother that job and child care opportunities were better here.
A strong social service network, coordinated through the Milwaukee Area Refugee Consortium, and growing ties to the city's Hmong population have spurred a second migration to Milwaukee among Somali-Bantus, said Yussuf Mursal, a resettlement case manager at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Hmong landlords in the northwest Milwaukee neighborhoods where many Somali-Bantu families have settled sometimes offer them one month of free rent or greater flexibility in paying the bills.
"They understand the refugee situation," Mursal said.
A universal language
On a sun-drenched soccer field at Glendale's Meaux Park, the Young Brothers fine-tune their game.
"Soccer at home is like basketball here," said Michael Were, a native of Kenya who moved to the Milwaukee area in 1985 to study at Marquette University and the Sacred Heart School of Theology.
Were mentors the team, showing up at their early morning games at Uihlein and helping raise the more than $500 it cost to enter the league this season. He has watched these teenagers become more confident and trusting during their years in Milwaukee.
There have been setbacks.
Somali-Bantu and American students have clashed, with fights occurring at Washington High School in the 2004-'05 and 2005-'06 school years. The violence resulted from ignorance about differences in language and dress, said Mursal, the Catholic Charities case manager. Administrators called him into Washington High to resolve the conflict.
The African refugees are primarily Muslim, and many women and girls cover their heads and much of their body. Some American students have taunted Somali-Bantus about their clothing or assumed that the African students' conversations in Maay Maay, their native dialect, are actually mean-spirited comments at their expense.
For Ali and the other Young Brothers, soccer has become a kind of universal language.
Jafar Hussein, a student at West Allis Hale High School and the team's captain, takes a philosophical approach to today's games.
"They are men and we are men," he said. "We're willing to win."