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From Somali Refugee to College Soccer Powerhouse

Abdi Shariff-Hassan holds the book "One Goal" on the soccer field Photo by Ed Brennen
Abdi Shariff-Hassan's journey from a Kenyan refugee camp to a high school soccer state championship in Maine is chronicled in "One Goal."

09/25/2018
By Ed Brennen

As a midfielder on the River Hawks’ nationally ranked men’s soccer team, sophomore business administration major Abdi Shariff-Hassan is helping write another exciting chapter in the program’s young Division I history this season.

Of course, storybook seasons are familiar turf for Shariff-Hassan. His 2015 state champion high school team in Lewiston, Maine, is the subject of the recently published book “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together.” 

Author Amy Bass, who will be at O’Leary Library on Oct. 3 for a reading, tells the inspiring story of how a team of Somali refugees (including Shariff-Hassan) and multigenerational Mainers came together to win a title – and, along the way, unite a former mill city bruised by racial tension. The book, for which Netflix optioned the rights in June, is also being featured in this fall’s Lowell Reads, a monthlong series of discussions and events hosted by the Pollard Memorial Library. 

“Not many people have their story written like that, so it’s pretty cool to be featured in the book,” says Shariff-Hassan, who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp after his family fled the civil war in its native Somalia. In 2005, when Shariff-Hassan was 8, his family emigrated to the U.S. and eventually settled in Lewiston, home to a growing Somali community. A shared passion for soccer brought many of the city’s young refugees together and led to the state championship in Shariff-Hassan’s senior year at Lewiston High.

Abdi Shariff-Hassan dribbles the ball during a game Photo by Bob Ellis
Sophomore midfielder Abdi Shariff-Hassan advances the ball for the nationally ranked UML men's soccer team.

“It was such a great feeling to do that with guys I’d grown up with, and with the whole city there cheering us on,” says Shariff-Hassan, who was named 2015 Gatorade Maine Player of the Year and NSCAA All-American. “It taught me that it doesn’t matter where someone is from or what their background or culture is – if you’re willing to work together, you can achieve any goal.”

He’s now applying those lessons with the UML men’s soccer team, which has 18 international players on its 34-man roster. Besides Kenya, there are players from Croatia, England, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Congo, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates.

“Everyone’s got a different road that brought them here,” says head coach Christian Figueroa, a native of Argentina. “They all learn from each other and appreciate what they’ve had to endure just to get this opportunity. So when one of our teammates like Abdi has that kind of firsthand experience and shares it with us, it’s awesome.”

Shariff-Hassan was on Figueroa’s recruiting radar coming out of high school, and the bright blip turned into a full-on commitment after a postgraduate year at the Kent School in Connecticut. “Having that PG year helped him as he continues to mature,” Figueroa says. “He’s a very family-oriented individual, so getting that first year away from home eased his transition here in Lowell.”

Abdi Shariff-Hassan shakes hands with Bonnie Comley Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Abdi Shariff-Hassan shakes hands with alum Bonnie Comley after receiving the Virginia and James Comley Scholarship last spring. Bonnie Comley endowed the scholarship in her parents' name.

Academically, Shariff-Hassan was able to adjust by taking part in the River Hawk Scholars Academy, which promotes student success for first-generation college students. In addition to working with Asst. Teaching Prof. Matthew Hurwitz and Academic Adviser Racheal Shertzer, Shariff-Hassan credits the support of Deborah Finch, an associate teaching professor in the Manning School of Business, and Lauren Trapasso, the soccer team’s coordinator for academic support services.

“I love the school and how there are always people trying to support you,” says Shariff-Hassan, who proudly received the first-ever Virginia and James Comley Scholarship from Chancellor Jacquie Moloney at last spring’s Celebration of Scholarship. 

Able to speak multiple languages (including Swahili and “some” Arabic), Shariff-Hassan plans to one day pursue a career in international business. But first, he wants to find out how far soccer can take him. After seeing limited playing time as a freshman, Shariff-Hassan’s minutes have increased this season, along with his role on the team.

“He’s still a young guy, but he’s really coming into himself now,” Figueroa says. “The value he adds as a guy out wide (on the perimeter), with his endurance and ability to work on both sides of the ball, has just been outstanding.”

Shariff-Hassan, who believes the River Hawks have a “special group this season” thanks to their team unity, is just happy to be contributing. “There’s so much talent on this team, from the first guy on the field to the last guy on the bench, so we always have to play at a high level and earn our playing time,” he says. 

As the only player from his high school championship team to move on to the D-I college level, Shariff-Hassan embraces being a role model for youngsters back in Lewiston. “Opening that door for the kids in the community means a lot,” he says. “They all know it’s possible now.”

And thanks to Bass’ book, they’ll always be able to remember Lewiston’s storybook season.

Abdi Shariff-Hassan poses with author Amy Bass and her daughter Photo by courtesy
Abdi Shariff-Hassan meets up with author Amy Bass and her daughter following the River Hawks' game at Quinnipiac in August.

“I appreciated how thoughtful he was about his contribution to the book,” says Bass, who found that getting to know the soft-spoken Shariff-Hassan during her research and writing was a “slow evolution.” But they’ve kept in touch since, with Bass following his college career on social media and attending games whenever possible.

“Playing D-I is a tough road, but he’s a ridiculously hard worker,” says Bass, a history professor at the College of New Rochelle in New York. “He’s balancing an enormous amount of responsibility every day, and it’s a testament to him that he’s making it work.”

“One Goal” is also finding its way into the curriculum. Noting similarities between the mill cities of Lewiston and Lowell, Distinguished University Professor Robert Forrant is having students in his Immigration History course read the book this semester because “it takes an important look at how newcomers are welcomed, or not welcomed, into New England.”  

Shariff-Hassan is excited about the book’s popularity and was happy to learn, via a teammate on Snapchat, that it’s on the shelves at the River Hawk Shop.

“I appreciate everything. Amy did an amazing job with the book,” says Shariff-Hassan, who expects that he and his Lewiston teammates will treasure the story even more when they reunite years from now. “We’ll be able to look at the book and say, ‘This is us. We did this.’”