Refugee living American dream as basketball, track athlete at Lee

Refugee living American dream as basketball, track athlete at Lee

Credit: David Flores /

Lee junior Farah Yussuf, a refugee whose family escaped war-torn Somalia in the mid-1990s, played guard on the basketball team this season and also will compete in track and field.


by David Flores /

Posted on February 15, 2013 at 11:08 AM

Updated Friday, Feb 15 at 11:08 AM

The power of the American dream is as tangible to Lee High School athlete Farah Yussuf as the horrors of the nightmare his family escaped when it left war-torn Somalia in the mid-1990s.

"The American dream is very real," Yussuf, a junior, said this week after playing in Lee's last basketball game of the season. "I know because I live it every day. I came here with nothing, but now I'm going to school and enjoying life."

Born on May 5, 1995, in Dadaab, Kenya, where his family fled after witnessing the ravages of the ongoing Somali Civil War, Yussuf moved to San Antonio in 2004 with his father, stepmother, paternal grandmother and six brothers and sisters. Yussuf, now, 17, was in the second grade then.

"Even though I was very young when we moved, I still remember people being killed in Africa," Yusuff said. "You could be gone in the blink of an eye. There was disease and just poor quality of life. I feel very fortunate to be here, to be in a safe environment and go to school and play basketball.

"If I was still in Africa, I probably never would have had a chance to do the things I'm doing now. I would be working, having kids or getting shot."

Yussuf's family is Somali Bantu, an ethnic minority in Somalia, a country located in Africa. Yussuf became a U.S. citizen late last year.

"It was pretty tough to adjust when we first moved here because I didn't know now to speak English, and it was embarrassing at times," Yussuf said. "I was ashamed to keep asking people for help all the time. But I kept working hard and I went to tutoring every morning until I learned English.

"I'd watch kids' shows on TV, like Dora (the Explorer), Barney and Elmo, and that really helped. I just love to learn. I like math, English and American history, too."


Lee coach: Yussuf 'your average American teenage kid'

Yussuf averaged about eight points as a guard on the Lee basketball team this season, his first on the varsity. He is also a sprinter, high jumper, long jumper and triple jumper on the track and field squad.

Norm Galyon has been Lee boys basketball since Yussuf's freshman season.

"He's been nothing but your average American teenage kid," Galyon said. "He's popular, friendly and everybody likes to have him around. He's a great teammate. He loves everything about live right now.

"As a basketball player, he's a really good shooter from the 3-point line to midrange. When he learns how to get his feet set and goes straight up, he's going to be a good player for us next year. We expect him to be our vocal leader on the floor."

Galyon, who served a five-year hitch in the Army from 1986-91, said Yussuf is a prime example of what this country has meant to millions of immigrants from throughout the world for years.

"The United States is still the greatest country for opportunity," Galyon said. "I think Farah is living the American dream. The American dream is still there. There's still a chance for someone to come from nothing and do whatever they want to do in this country. Only here. It's why everybody wants to come here.

"It's a great opportunity for Farah, and I think it's a great opportunity for us, too, to have a kid like that. It's awesome. It's a win-win for everybody."

To watch Yussuf interact with his teammates and classmates is, as Galyon said, to see a typical American teenager in the 21st century.

"I love everything here, the music, the sports," Yussuf said. "I like to go to the movies with my friends on Saturdays and Sundays."


Yussuf big fan of LeBron James, Usain Bolt

Yussuf said he's been heartened by the way his classmates have accepted him at Lee.

"It feels good to be in people's lives in a positive way," Yussuf said. "When people think about me, I want them to think of me as someone who always tries to smile, and always tries to treat people right. I don't put people down."

Lee student trainer Amy Santiago smiled when she was asked about Yussuf.

"Farah is a goofball, just a regular teenage boy," she said. "He always has fun and has a smile on his face."

Yussuf's favorite athletes are Miami Heat superstar LeBron James and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who has won a total of six gold medals in the last two Summer Olympics.

"When LeBron is playing on TV, I always watch him," Yussuf said. "And Bolt, well, he's just great."

Yussuf traces the beginning of his interest in basketball to 2008, when he watched the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers clash in the NBA Finals.

"I remember seeing Ray Allen and all those guys, and I wanted to be like them," Yussuf said. "I bought a basketball and my dad put me in NYS. I wasn't good at it, but I just wanted to play and try to get better."

Yussuf played on National Youth Sports teams in the city until he went to Nimitz Middle School, where he was on the basketball squad as a seventh and eighth-grader.


Yussuf: Americans take way of life for granted

While Yussuf has assimilated to American life, his memories of the tough times he endured living in refugee camps keep him grounded.

"People in this country take things for granted," he said. "They say they're bored and talk about wanting an iPhone. People in Africa go without food and many don't even have electricity or fresh running water. Our house was a mud hut and our bed was made of mud, too. It was pretty rough.

"In Africa, you just don't get up and go to the water fountain or to the restroom. Here, you know you're going to eat and have fresh water when you wake up in the morning. You have a TV and other comforts, and you get to go to school. There is stability. But there, you don't know what's going to happen when you wake up in the morning."

Yussuf said he enjoys going to Lee, which has one of the most diverse enrollments in San Antonio.

"There are people from African and Mexico, and there are white people," Yussuf said. "It's the perfect place to be. Black and white, it doesn't matter. We're all the same. It doesn't matter where you came from.

"It's where you're going. That's what we're looking forward to, not where you came from. It's how you treat people. That's what matters."

Yussuf said he would like to go to college and pursue a career as a nurse or firefighter.

"I just love helping people," he said.


Yussuf has developed close bond with coach

The Lee boys basketball team finished 2-33 overall and 0-12 in District 26-5A this season. After Churchill beat the Volunteers in their finale 85-55 Monday night, Yussuf talked about his goals for next season.

"I'm going to work hard in the offseason to get better," Yussuf said. "I want to get better at shooting off the dribble and getting better as a passer. I want to be a better leader for my team. I don't want to go through a season like this again."

Yussuf has developed a close bond with Galyon, a MacArthur High School graduate who was an assistant at Reagan before succeeding Tommy Hines at Lee in 2010.

"When things are tough, you can't give up," Yussuf said. "I've learned so much from Coach Galyon. He's been good to me. He's been like a father figure. I couldn't ask for a better coach. He's an amazing guy. He has taught me so much.

"When I wanted to quit, he was there to help me. Without him, I don't think I would be playing basketball. I want to get better just to put a smile on his face."

Yussuf's father, Dadiri Jama, works as a cab driver and at a hotel, and doesn't get a chance to his son compete in sports very often.

"I understand," Yussuf said. "He's got to work a lot of hours because he has a large family."

Yussuf's mother died of malaria in 2000. He credited his stepmother and grandmother for helping him adjust to life in the United States.

"They are always there for me," Yussuf said. "I'm just happy to be where I am."

Then he smiled.