Sports

'The game's a common language': Anchorage prep soccer teams reflect city's diversity

There aren't any Krispy Kremes in Kenya.

There aren't any of the popular doughnut franchises in Alaska either, which means selling the glazed goodies -- which are flown in -- has become a popular fundraising event. On a recent Saturday afternoon, members of the East High boys soccer team took turns standing on the corner of Northern Lights Boulevard and the Seward Highway, waving at passers-by while trying to entice them to stop at a nearby parking lot to make a purchase. Somehow, one of the boxes made its way to the players, who quickly gobbled them up. Everybody had one except Mohamed Osman, a Somali from Kenya who plays on the team.

"He had two," teammate Mustafa Musa said with a laugh.

Osman just grinned.

Like the doughnuts, Musa and Osman -- and many of their peers on local high school soccer teams -- traveled long distances to Anchorage, a city whose uncommon diversity can be seen in the myriad shades of the foreheads heading soccer balls up and down the soccer pitch this spring.

But what might be remarkable elsewhere is no big thing to the players, who look at their varied ethnicities as something of a nonissue in a place that's home to some of the most diverse schools and neighborhoods in the United States.

"It's not even a big deal at all," explained Musa, a junior who was born in Minnesota after his family fled the civil war in Somalia.

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Musa and his Thunderbird teammates are as diverse as it gets. The team features whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Alaska Natives, Pacific Islanders and those of multiple races -- in other words, someone from every category tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau.

That's not a surprise to University of Alaska Anchorage sociology professor Chad Farrell, who has studied Anchorage's unique ethnic makeup in depth.

"It's reflective of the distinct demographic mix we have here in Anchorage," he said.

Farrell has compiled data from schools across the country and used mathematical analysis to determine which are the most diverse. Out of approximately 16,000 schools that reported data through the U.S. Department of Education, Farrell found that East ranked first, Bartlett was second and West came in third.

Those trends are even more striking for younger students in the city, Farrell said. According to his research, the 19 most diverse elementary schools and six of the seven most diverse middle schools in the country are in Anchorage.

"When I present these data to my students, they find it interesting how high we rank on some of these indices, but they're much more ho-hum about it because many of my students are graduates of East High School," Farrell said. "They don't need to be told our schools are diverse. The people who are most shocked are people in the Lower 48."

'It's different here'

Like Osman, Abdihakim ("Abdi" to his teammates) and Abdallah Zirah are Somali refugees who learned to play soccer barefoot in the dirt of Kenyan refugee camps. Using balls made from wadded-up plastic grocery bags, the boys emulated the moves of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi, hoping to someday have a chance to play with a real ball but never really thinking it would happen.

"I thought we would be there forever," said Abdi, a junior midfielder at Bartlett and one of the team's leading scorers.

The diminutive soccer player (he stands 5-foot-5 at most) has been a bright spot for the Golden Bears, helping the team reach the state playoffs for the first time in more than two decades. After the season, he hopes to get a summer job, go to summer school and play more soccer.

It's a sport that has allowed him to express himself and to fit into unfamiliar surroundings in his adopted home. Wearing a long-sleeved U.S. Soccer pullover to a recent interview, Abdi flashed a wide grin as he recounted a mid-season game against West when his unlikely header spurred an eventual comeback win for the Golden Bears. It was the highlight of his season, he said, and something he never thought would happen just a few years ago.

Abdallah said life in the refugee camps was frightening.

"There's danger sometimes at night, people killing each other," he said.

In Alaska, the family is free to dream of building a new and better life.

"It's different here," he said. "Peaceful."

Both Abdi and his brother, Abdallah, said they hope to go to college someday and would like to remain in Alaska, where they're learning to become part of a new kind of community far from their war-torn homeland.

"Here you can do more, you have more freedoms," Abdallah said.

'You're reminded how lucky you are'

The Zirah family -- Abdi and Abdallah, along with their father, Muhammed, younger brother Ali and younger sister Zahara -- earned refugee status two years ago and were brought to Anchorage by the U.S. State Department. Flying into the nation's northernmost state was shocking to people who only knew the heat of East Africa.

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"I was like, 'what is this place?' " Abdi said.

Abdallah, a sophomore who plays on Bartlett's junior varsity team, said that he didn't know what to make of the cold.

"I just cried," he said.

Coming to the United States is rife with challenges, said Jessica Kovarik, director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Social Services. Each year, the agency helps about 130 refugees like the Zirahs get settled in Anchorage. Most come from places where simply surviving is a day-to-day battle.

"It's just unimaginable what people go through," Kovarik said. "You're reminded how lucky you are not to have to wait in a water line or a food distribution line."

Initially, the Zirah boys struggled to integrate themselves. But after joining a recreational league soccer team run by Catholic Social Services called "AK Fugees," they started to make friends. Soon, they started picking up bits of English -- something both said is a major priority.

"Everywhere you go, English is going to help you," Abdallah said. "If someone's sick, who can help you if you don't know English?"

The boys' father, a dishwasher, puts a premium on the children's schooling. Abdi and Abdallah said he insists they work on their educations.

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"My dad says, 'I don't want a son sleeping in my house that don't know anything,' " Abdallah said.

According to Anchorage School District English Language Learners (ELL) program director Phil Farson, one in five Anchorage students comes from a household where English is not the first language.

"That's a statistic I think is important for people to start wrapping their minds around," Farson said.

Most immigrant families put a high emphasis on learning the language, he said.

"The kids want to learn it, and they learn it readily," he said.

'By the spring I was talking with everybody'

Bartlett's head coach is Matt Froehle, who graduated from the school in 1990. Even back then, the school in northeast Anchorage was a diverse place, with its high percentage of military students from the adjacent Elmendorf Air Force Base and the Army's Fort Richardson (now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson).

"Back then it was very much military," said Froehle, who is white. "We had black, white, Native, Hispanic -- but the Southeast Asian population wasn't here yet."

In the years since, Anchorage has seen a sizable influx of immigrants from Asia, primarily Filipinos and ethnic Hmong from Thailand and Laos. There has also been an increase in the number of Pacific Islanders, mostly Samoans.

When Froehle became the head coach three years ago, he wanted to take advantage of the school's rich diversity. So he held his first meeting in the school's ELL classroom.

"I wanted to actively reach out to the different populations," said Froehle.

This year's Bartlett team mirrors the school's mix of cultures and ethnicities. The Golden Bears have players who trace their roots to Cambodia, China, Colombia, Europe, Guam, Japan, Korea, Laos, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Somalia and Thailand. The head coach thinks that's a very good thing.

"It's something that we're real proud of; we're able to include virtually every ethnicity in the school," he said. "I think it's a true representation."

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Sophomore Paul Yang, who is Hmong, was born in the state of Georgia before moving to Alaska in 2001. He said he enjoys playing on a team that features players from a variety of groups.

"We have a lot of different diversity just coming together as one, and just trying to be a team as one and play as one," he said. "It's not always easy, but we're getting there."

Yang said soccer has been a positive force for him both on and off the pitch.

"When I came in freshman year, I didn't really know anybody until I played soccer," he said. "By the spring I was talking with everybody here."

Cross-cultural communication

According to Farrell, several neighborhoods in Anchorage rank among the most diverse in the nation, including Mountain View, which tops the list. Immigrants make up about 10 percent of Anchorage's population, but their presence is only one reason for the city's diversity. Other significant contributors, he said, include a large military presence, a relatively high proportion of Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders and the presence of many other ethnic groups in equal numbers. Many areas of the country are highly diverse, but are missing one or two ethnic groups almost entirely. Not so in Anchorage.

"There are few areas in the United States that have the mix of groups and the presence of groups in significant sizes," Farrell said.

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Farrell pointed to a pie chart showing a typical U.S. high school. The chart looked like Pac-Man, with one ethnic group far outnumbering all others. Then he showed East, the nation's most diverse high school. Its pie chart looks like a Trivial Pursuit piece, with all seven demographic groups occupying relatively equal portions of the pie.

La Yang, another Hmong on the Bartlett team, said diversity is a team strength.

"It's pretty cool -- we get to share stories and talents and backgrounds and that makes us a stronger team," he said. "We're all mixed up and that's what makes us stronger."

Farrell said that when conditions are right -- say, when a highly diverse group of people works together toward a common goal -- it can make for positive and dynamic outcomes.

"I think athletics is a perfect example where you have a team where you're working toward the same goal. Those are, theoretically, the prime conditions under which diversity works to have that kind of beneficial impact on tolerant attitudes," he said. "It kind of forces you to drop your baggage."

Kovarik, with Catholic Social Services, sees sports as a great way for newcomers to the United States to find common ground with their new neighbors.

"We find the benefits of it are things like team-building, cooperation, all of those things really have a positive effect on the kids, giving them some leadership skills, communication skills," she said. "Talk about cross-cultural communication, right?"

Froehle said having a mix of players from different backgrounds makes for some interesting soccer. He said players who learned the game overseas typically have better ball-handling skills, while American-raised players are better with tactics.

"With all of those cultural differences come different styles based on different forms of athleticism and different body types -- you have all that stuff that mixes together," he said.

'A common language'

Back at the busy intersection of the Seward Highway and Northern Lights Boulevard, East's players were still waving at passing cars late in the afternoon. All wore flimsy white hats emblazoned with the doughnut company's logo. The most energetic sign-waver was Nelson Centeno, a midfielder from El Salvador who has only been in the United States for a year. As cars honked on their way by, Centeno danced, smiled and waved a large sign upon which head coach Kash Kinder had pained a picture of Homer Simpson.

Through teammate Ephriam Rodriguez, Centeno explained his enthusiasm.

"He's really excited," Rodriguez said.

When they're on the field together, Centeno -- who has a preference for keeping his hands tucked inside a long undershirt even on warm days -- often speaks in Spanish to Rodriguez, then uses broken English with other teammates. Bartlett's La Yang said he does something similar -- with his Hmong teammates he speaks Hmong, with everyone else it's English.

Froehle, a former minor league pro, said that's not uncommon at the highest levels of soccer, where teams made up of multiethnic lineups are the norm.

"The game's a common language," he said.

Speaking Spanish, Centeno said he likes Alaska better than El Salvador and wants to be a professional soccer player when he grows up. Standing with a group of teammates that included African, Latin, white and Middle Eastern teenagers, Centeno looked around and smiled when he shared what he likes best about his adopted country.

"Mis amigos," he said.

Contact reporter Matt Tunseth at 257-4335 or mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.

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