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Saturday, July 7, 2012

New country, new sport for young Somalis in Minnesota

By Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio

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It's 99 degrees inside the Roosevelt High School gym in Minneapolis. But the combination of summer heat and lack of air conditioning hasn't slowed any of the action at this year's Hoop for Hope Somali Basketball Tournament.

Sixteen teams from across the United States and Canada are here competing for top honors. The players range in age from 17-28 years old.

Their parents grew up in Somalia, where soccer was the sport of choice. But these young athletes spent their childhoods in the urban areas of North America, where basketball is king, and there's a public court in almost every neighborhood.

That's Ahmed Hirsi's story. As a child in rural Somalia, he had never heard of basketball. The first time he saw the game played was later at a refugee camp in Kenya.

"I remember saying, 'I want to be in there. I want to play. I want to play,'" he recalled recently.

After fleeing the civil war in Somalia, with his family finding safety in the United States, Hirsi found his life's passion.

"When I was 13, the first day I came to this country I picked up a basketball, and ever since then I haven't let it go," Hirsi said.

He worked his way onto his high school's varsity team. And today, at 32 years old, he's commissioner of the Somali Basketball League in the Twin Cities.

His enthusiasm mirrored that of other Somalis at Roosevelt for the tournament. Spectator Abdie Sheekh said he was drawn to the sport because, unlike football, "You can win without having to hit people."

"Basketball is aggressive," he said. "But it's not to the point where you want to hurt the person and see them knocked on the ground."

As 18-year-old tournament volunteer Muna Mohamed fanned her face with her headscarf, she talked about how she's played basketball since she was in middle school and hopes to be part of a college team.

"There's a lot of good players, but I'm waiting for them to dunk," she said. "That's what's more exciting in guys' basketball, because there's dunking and other moves. I'm not discriminating against the girls' basketball, but we all know girls can't dunk.

"I heard there's three girls in the world who can dunk, but they're not Americans. Maybe I'll do that if I grow 3 more inches," she laughed.

League commissioner Hirsi loves watching the jump shots -- and the rare slam dunk. But he said the Somali Basketball League is about more than just which team can get the ball through the hoop.

"There have been a lot of young Somalis that were doing a lot of bad stuff," said Hirsi. "Some went back to fight, to join al-Shabab, join a gang. We want to change that, and basketball is the tool that we want to use."

Unlike football or hockey, basketball doesn't require expensive gear. And the sport is often associated with hip-hop, a culture which is already popular among young Somali-Americans, Hirsi said.

He pointed to a young boy trying to dribble a basketball behind the bleachers.

"How old is this guy here?" he asked "Nine? Ten? We have young kids here. We want to teach them to be responsible and be a good citizen. For me, as a coach, as a father, this is something to get them off the streets."

As players zip across the court, hundreds of fans cheer them on. Much of the encouragement comes from the teenage girls who've taken over the far end of the stands.

"I came here to support the guys and watch them play," one said. She turned to her friends. "Why'd you guys come here today?" The girls respond with laughter.

Their giggling seems to be directed at Abdul Mohamud, a Burnsville, Minn., player whose team just beat tournament favorite Toronto in overtime.

"They want me to go sit by them," Mohamud admitted. "But I'm too smelly right now!"

The tournament may not result in any love connections. But it's been quite successful in uniting the Somali community, Hirsi said.

"Seeing all these young folks coming together from different states -- there's no violence," he said. "We want to teach them leadership. It's good to see this generation getting along, and we want to continue this so they can pass on to the next generation."

Hirsi thinks basketball could have the same positive impact in Somalia. He's donating all of the proceeds from this year's tournament to Mogadishu University in Somalia, which will use the money to build a basketball court on campus.

Source: MPR

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