Mohamed Hamza doesn't remember everything from his early childhood in Kenya, but he does remember kicking a soccer ball. Organizing soccer games against other neighborhoods is basically all his friends wanted to do.
When he moved to the United States at 8 years old, Hamza picked up English quickly. But the West Fargo senior connected with his fellow Packers through the language he knew best in soccer.
"It's something I can bring over from there to here," Hamza said. "It's something that's familiar. It's a language that we can all speak here. It's helped me build a lot of relationships and friendships that have carried on to other parts of my life."
West Fargo is a home to a wide range of international students. Between every student and coach on their boys soccer varsity roster, the Packers come from nine different countries and can speak 13 different languages. Sabiti Morisho is from Zambia and can speak Swahili, Bemba, Nyanja and Chitonga; Ibrahim Salou is from Togo and can speak French, Mina and Ewe; Levi Larteh, Enoch Gartei, Telvin Vah and assistant coach Jackson Dunor are from Liberia and speak a Liberian language; Junior Ouattara is from the Ivory Coast region and speaks French, as does Michael Byaoma; Yussuf Mohamed, Abdirizak Ali and Hamza are from Kenya and speak Somali, Swahili and Arabic; Purna Rana and Jewan Mangar are from Nepal and speak Nepali; and Mohamed Isse and Omar Ahmed are from Somalia and speak Somali. Coach George Gauld is also from England.
Packers head coach James Moe believes his team is special because these kids from diverse backgrounds can come together, build relationships and excel on the level they are. The returning state champion Packers (12-4-2, 10-2-2 Eastern Dakota Conference) won their first EDC regular season title as a program and will be the East Region's No. 1 seed in the North Dakota state tournament as they play West Region No. 4-seeded Mandan at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12, at Jamestown High School.
"(Soccer is) the only thing anybody plays," Hamza said of Kenya. "It's the one physical language we can all understand."
Hamza said the talent level may be higher in Kenya, but the sport is much more organized in the United States. When he came to West Fargo in the second grade, not many kids were playing soccer during recess so Hamza easily looked like the best player around early on.
Although soccer is a major passion of his, Hamza's attention is on his education. His parents brought him to the United States for a better life and is now looking at becoming a pre-medical student in college.
"My parents wanted a better education, better environment, better everything than what we were receiving," Hamza said. "It's just a better lifestyle here."
Working with these widely different players is like finding the right pieces to a puzzle, Moe said, and the major challenge is teaching them the system of organized soccer with a stronger focus on positions. Moe will often work with different coaches who know how to speak these players' languages or dialects so they can communicate with the players from the sidelines as they learn English.
"Soccer is a common language with guys from all the different backgrounds we have," Moe said. "It's a way these guys connect and feel a part of something. It's something they all understand. The way they play might be different, but ultimately the rules and goals are all the same, and so that really puts them on the same page."
Vah was born and raised in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where he fell in love with soccer. Growing up, Vah went to the local fields and watched his three uncles play in community leagues every weekend. Vah's father was hired in New Jersey when Vah was in the fourth grade looking for a better life for his children.
"Everyone wants to follow their dreams, so he wanted a better life for my family," Vah said. "He looked forward to making a family in a better place and me getting a better opportunity."
James Mehn, Vah's uncle, is one of the best soccer players Vah knew and still communicates with the West Fargo junior every week to ask how his soccer matches went and how the team looks. Vah wanted to follow in his uncle's footsteps so he dedicated himself to soccer with the continual support of his family.
Now Vah is getting college offers seemingly every day. His top choices are the University of Chicago, University of Tampa, University of California-Santa Barbara and Louisville.
"It was definitely hard leaving because you come to a new country," Vah said. "You don't know anyone. Your parents go to work from the morning to the evening, so you just have to do what you can do, stay out of trouble and work hard."
Soccer provides an outlet to relate, Moe said. The players who don't know English right away feel much more at ease when they play soccer, Moe said, and because of their time in organized activities when they play soccer, these players grow from silent role players to vocal leaders.
"It's really fun to see the growth and the comfort," Moe said. "It's a way for everyone to be a part of something."