It’s a close game. The teams have been trading points throughout the second half and fans are on their feet as squeaking sneakers race down the court against a dwindling clock.
It’s a pretty standard scene at Tukwila’s Foster High School gymnasium — except that the audience is sitting in gender-segregated bleachers, the coaches are wearing Muslim skullcaps and the teams are named Iman Shafi (after an Islamic scholar) and Al-Huda (“guidance” in Arabic).
“This generation of east Africans, they love basketball,” says Ayanle Ismail from the sidelines, “Soccer is not our thing. Soccer was for the older generation… and in Africa.”
Ismail was introduced to basketball through the Boys and Girls Club back in the 1990s, when he arrived in Seattle as an eight-year-old escaping civil war in Somalia. Sports provided discipline, mentorship and structure during an uncertain time — and he believes this generation of East African youth can benefit the same way.
“They’re all in the same position,” says Ismail, who helped recently co-found the non-profit Companion Athletics to provide sports opportunities and mentorship to young people in his community “If a child is not preoccupied, is not busy, he’s going to go to the streets.”
And Companion Athletics keeps 150 players (ranging from middle school age to adult) busy every Sunday in a series of games that start at one o’clock and run until nine o’clock during March and April. In the offseason the organization offers group activities (like an inner tubing trip to Snoqualmie Pass) and leadership camps. There’s also a girl’s athletic program run out of the SeaTac Community Center.
No one is turned away for lack of talent or experience and religious and cultural sensitivity (games break for Muslim prayer times) combined with affordability (eighty dollars for the whole season) make it popular enough among students and parents that the organization already has a waitlist of over thirty people.
There are mentor talks after games — today it’s Marcus Stubblefield, who works with youth through the Office of the King County Executive. What’s more, athletes must present their grades before playing. If their GPA is below a C average, they have two weeks to pull it up before someone from the waitlist takes their spot.
“My GPA was like a 2.9 but since I started wanting to play here I brought my GPA up to a 3.3,” says Hamzah Ibrahim, 18, who was voted Most Valuable Player in the league when he helped lead his team, “Ethiopian Muslim Association of Seattle” (or EMAS for short) to a championship win last season.
But it’s not just the basketball that keeps Ibrahim coming back every weekend.
“The community here, it just makes me more comfortable,” he says before rushing off to suit up for his upcoming game, “I’m around other people…other Africans.”
The gym costs $1,000 to rent each week, uniforms are pricey and organizers, coaches and mentors all balance work and family alongside Companion Sports. But it’s worth it for the impact it can have in the community says Ismail.
“We have a high juvenile [detention] rate for east Africans…[and] a high drop out rate,” he explains his eyes never leaving the game racing past us “Sports will unite us and give us a platform to discuss these issues.”
And the feelings of unity are undeniable. When a buzzer shot at the end of the second half results in a score-tying basket the gym explodes. Players and fans flood the court, piling on each other in excitement as moms in hijab and traditional Somali dress scream and high five each other.
One of those women is Hibaq Hirsi. Two of her sons are playing this evening, both of whom have brought up their grades in order to be on the team. She likes the grade checking and believes that basketball helps keep her kids from falling in with “bad people.” But most important to her is that they’re having fun.
“I like it as long as they like it,” she says laughing, “They have fun and enjoy themselves.”
With that, her attention has turned back to the court. The game has gone into overtime and she’s got players to root for.