From running on the soccer field to running for a better life

“Hey, are you taller than Phil Jackson?”

Well, that is an odd question when you are purchasing some chocolate milk at a gas station market.

“I believe we are the same size, but I am way better looking,” I answered with a joking grin.

The man standing behind the counter taking my money and processing my purchase then went on to say that he lived in LA for a while and walked past Phil Jackson, who was sitting down at a mall, and whom the man claims was still taller than him and he was seated.

How big is Shaq?

7’1″

How big is Kevin Durant?

7′

Doesn’t this guy have a cell phone with google? I know I played ball, but I am not a height expert.  He continued to ask me the height of about 15 different players and I started to chuckle in amusement.   This reminded me of when I was 17 years old and I would be sitting with my brother eating at the Junction restaurant in DeKalb, IL (best Monte Cristo and french fries & gravy in the universe) and Zeke Carlson would sit behind me in the booth and just rattle of names of Division 1 basketball programs.

“Hawaii or Iowa?  Utah or Colorado? NIU or Illinois State?”  A good hour of him asking me which school I would rather play basketball at if I had an opportunity.  Still a running joke between my brother and I.

As I continue to share with my precise education on the height of every NBA star with the clerk at the Shell Station the conversations starts to move to my height and where I played.  I shared with him that I played at Arizona State and I played internationally all over the world.

He then pulls out his cell phone and shows me a picture of a young man with a Tom Selleck like mustache.

“That is me right there!”  He said with excitement as he pointed to the man with the magical stache in the middle wearing a national team jersey with Ethiopia plastered across the front. “Back in the day I played professional soccer and I played on the Ethiopian National team.  We would  travel all over the world and play in big stadiums and play the best players in the world.”

Well, this conversation just got interesting.  I was not expecting the man who was working behind the counter at a Shell Gas station to be a former professional soccer player.  That is what I get for judging a book by its cover.

“Playing soccer was my love, but the first opportunity I got, I left to come to the United States as a refugee.  My girlfriend went to Canada and then we were able to reconnect a few years later in the United States and we got married and had a family here. We are both U.S. Citizens and we are both very happy.”  He then went on to make some very funny comments about Trump and how people often judge him based on his race and religion.  He then stated that “It is the world we live in, but I love that you traveled and you understand people and culture.  But in reality, I have been through way worse than just being judged because I am a muslim with brown skin from Africa.”

“Holy ish,”  I thought in my head.   I just came in from some chocolate milk and instead my sudden thirst for Milk from a black cow has led me to this amazing individual.   I needed more!

We continued to talk for about 20 minutes.  I just sat there in front of the register as we shared stories of traveling, religion, life, kids, soccer, and more.  He continued to show me pictures of him playing back in the day and would talk about how different his life was when he was famous in his country, but continued to share why living and raising his family in the United States was worth everything he had to give up.  When people would come in, I would slide over, allow the man to do his job, and then we would continue our conversation.  By this time I wasn’t even thirsty for chocolate milk anymore, but Instead I was thirsty for this guy to continue telling me his story.  I pleaded with him for another 10 minutes to allow me to interview him and share his story.  I let him know how inspiring it was and that I believe his story would impact anyone who would read it.  He denied my request, you could still tell he was uncomfortable sharing and didn’t want his name to get out and about.  “I don’t even have Facebook or any social media, I just like to keep to myself.”  I honored his request for privacy, but I told him I was going to write something about our encounter and I would not share his name or any details other than high level info.

I went back into my car and once again I was amazed at how the most random conversations seem to lead to some of the best stories.  Here is a guy who loved, loved, loved futbal (soccer).  It was his passion!  He had made it to the top level in his country and was representing his nation as one of the best of the best.  He then gave it all up to escape in search of a better life.  He went from playing in front of thousands of fans to working at a shell gas station in Tennessee, but his smile and joy for life showed his heart and his spirit.  He was happy, hand no regrets, and stated that he would have done it all over again to have the life that he has now.

I started doing some research on refugees from Ethiopia in the 1980’s and I ran across this article.

Article Link: 

It is an great article that talks about the rough road that Ethiopians had in coming to the United States and what conditions were like in Ethiopia that forced many to seek refugee in the United States and other countries around the world. It really puts things into perspective.  Drought, famine, government repression, and conflicts with insurgents are things that most Americans never have to think about.  The idea that as an American you could work your whole life towards a goal, achieve that goal to the highest degree, and then have to flee out of fear and safety and give up something that you loved and cherished and spent your whole life dedicated too.  I can’t even imagine if when I was 18, finally made it to Arizona State University on a scholarship, and then leaving to move to another country out of fear of death and then never getting to continue realizing my passion and dream.   We find this hard to comprehend, but every day we encounter refuges that are working at gas stations or similar places who in their home country could have been engineers, writers, teachers, etc.

As I sat in my car that night I started thinking about my life.  All the times I thought “This isn’t fair,” or “Why me.”  The idea that we have a plan in our life and in one second it can be altered and the course can be changed is a daunting feeling and one that often breaks our spirits.  I started to think about my own depression and all of my plans that have not gone my way and then I thought about my new Tom Selleck- Pele – Ethiopian – friend and what he went through.  I then thought about his words “I would do it all over again.”   I think about how he explained how tough it was at first, but years down the road he was happy and thankful that he gave it all up and came to the United States.  As I started to fall asleep, I thanked God for what I have, for what I don’t have, I prayed for all the people that I love, the people that I have hurt, the people that I have lost or pushed away, and I thanked him for allowing me to continue on this journey.  I thanked him for all of my failures and for all of my successes.  I thanked him for making me thirsty and for leading me to my new buddy and hearing his story, which was exactly what I needed.

Please share if this touches you or impacts you in anyway.

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