Having Welcome: A Plea for Jamal
Abdikadir Negeye’s story does a lot of work in ONE GOAL. Unlike so many of the players on the soccer team at the center of the book, he remembers fleeing Somalia, the journey, the dangers. He remembers life in the refugee camps – the daily grind of survival in Dadaab and then Kakuma. His vivid memories provide windows into the life of displaced people, people pushed out of the place they once called home and into a seemingly never ending passage to find somewhere to land.
In the early pages of Chapter 3 in ONE GOAL, “Welcome to Vacationland,” Abdikadir's stories about the time he spent in the camps – some fourteen years – help a reader to imagine, if even for a moment, what refugee life entails.
His family of twelve lived in a one-room hut with a plastic-covered roof. He remembers the long lines for grain rations, and the cries of hungry children with a constant burning in their bellies. On the days that they had breakfast, there was no lunch or dinner. Thieves preyed upon their rations. It was dark at night, and with darkness came danger.
After the UNHRC relocated his family to the outskirts of Atlanta, they found their way north to Maine.
The family was unprepared for how long the journey to Lewiston would take. Negeye remembers looking out the window of the bus as it wound northward. The then-nineteen-year-old found the view constantly startling. His mother, brothers, and sisters, just a few packed bags among them, only knew to listen for “Lewiston” on the thirty-plus-hour ride. But when they finally got off the bus, Somali friends were waiting, as was most always the case.
“We had welcome,” he recalls of the many Somalis who offered them food and housing. “It was a very big relief.”
"We had welcome" is a phrase that stays with me every time I talk about ONE GOAL, whether to middle schoolers or university students or patrons at a local library. It stays with me because of its simplicity, its beauty. The idea that looking for a home isn’t just about finding a structure to live in. Rather, it's about the community you are part of, and the contributions you make to it.
Abdikadir was the very first person I talked to when I started writing about the Lewiston Blue Devils. He is now someone I call friend, a twist of fate that both of us are so cognizant of that we often say it to each other. “How are you, my friend?” “Thank you, my friend.” “It will be so good to see you, my friend.” It is a lovely thing, that – to recognize and memorialize friendship, to be conscious of it, whether we are hanging out together at the food truck of the Isuken Food Co-op drinking chai and eating Sambusa, watching a soccer game during the Respect Ramadan tournament, chatting at Maine Refugee and Immigrant Services, which he helped found, or giving a talk at Bates College about Somalis in Lewiston.
He is also my teacher, just as he has been a teacher to so many others.
Abdikadir Negeye worked as a translator at Geiger Elementary, a position with enormous impact but little recognition. “Making phone calls, taking messages from parents to the teachers, from teachers to the parents,” Negeye says of his daily tasks. “I was kind of a bridge, bridging the gap not only to trans- late, but also culturally, talking about a lot of things like Eid or Christmastime.” He constantly reassured teachers that they couldn’t ask him a dumb question. Every now and then, he reconsidered that point.
I have asked him more questions than probably anyone else living on this planet aside from my mother. He patiently answers each one, sometimes even adjusting what I’m asking to better suit my own needs. When it came time to create translations in the book, he was my go-to. When it came time for the recording of the audio book, we sent each other voice texts over the course of many days, his voice guiding me – and then the publisher – through everything from colloquial sayings to different names and places.
When CNN contacted me about a Fourth of July series they wanted to do last year about new Americans, wanting to include one of the Somalis living in Maine, I suggested Abdikadir.
His family now needs our help. On August 12 of this year, which was Eid al-Adha, a car hit 10-year-old Jamal on Sabattus Street in Lewiston. Because of a traumatic brain injury, Jamal has not opened his eyes since. After surgery at Central Maine Medical Center, he has been at Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland with his mother, Ikran, and Abdikadir keeping close watch. And now doctors are discussing the possibility of moving him to Boston for continued care.
The cost of the long term care that Jamal needs is astounding, and well beyond what this hard working family will be able to manage. So some of their friends – as they themselves would never ask for anything – have set up a fund to help support them. Every little bit helps. The cards and letters from classmates and strangers alike have been critical in keeping everyone’s spirits up. The family’s strong faith has ensured that hope remains. But the bottom line? – Money is needed.
The story of ONE GOAL is a story about community, a story that encourages people to understand that community is hard work at every level – local and global. So much of what I understand about community I understand through Abdikadir’s eyes – eyes that travelled from Africa to America, through college and graduate school, through local schools and community organizations, through soccer fields and bleachers, and through the arduous process of citizenship.
At the end of the day, it comes down to one thing: finding welcome. And once you do, helping others find it, too.
To help Jamal, please see the fundraising campaign set up by friends, "Jamal's Road to Recovery".