Saturday February 25, 2023
By Ralph Hannah
The remarkable rise of Wahda United, a semi-professional side built out of a burgeoning refugee population in the state of Maine
Lewiston Blue Devils High School team celebrating their second State Championship in November 2017. @LHSBlueDevils
Perched in the top-right corner of the United States lies Maine.
It is a small, sleepy state with no professional sports teams, where almost 94 per cent of people identify as white. Therefore, it comes as a surprise to find that in the former mill town of Lewiston, not only is there a new semi-professional football team, but that it is called Wahda United.
Behind the formation of the club is a remarkable Somali-American family that has channelled their passion for football and education to help unite a local community.
It was clear after just a few minutes speaking with 27-year-old club secretary and player Abdibaari Hersi that this was no ordinary immigrant clan; it is one that has been rooted in footballing tradition despite having crossed continents and more recently the country.
“My father Abdullahi Abdi was the national team manager for Somalia in the 1996 Olympics,” said Abdibaari. “That’s why we first settled in Atlanta, he saw a better life and future for us there.”
But still, life wasn’t easy for the newly immigrated family who, like many refugees found themselves in a “dangerous” area on the outskirts of the city that was still suffering the tail end of the crack epidemic and resulting violence.
The eldest brother of the nine siblings was a fatal victim, killed on a basketball court – a tragedy compounded by escaping a civil war only to find themselves as collateral damage in the failed war on drugs of the 1990s.
Yet this part of the story isn’t unique to the Hersi family; in fact many Somalians began looking for a more peaceful life in their new home and the tranquil north-eastern part of the States was a natural destination.
The first wave of Somalis into Lewiston began with a group of 50 in February 2001 and by the time the Hersi’s arrived in 2006 the figure was into the thousands.
At first many welcomed the revival in a town that had suffered a 10 per cent population decline between 1990 and 2000, but for a modest-sized town and that majority white community, it was something of a shock and over time the burgeoning refugee population was not as well received.
Abdibaari sees it differently though. “It’s nice to see how the town has transitioned,” he noted. “It was slow and there wasn’t a lot of businesses open after dark”.
In fact many boarded-up shops in downtown were reopened under Somali ownership and the last six years has seen a bigger wave of immigrants from Africa and the Middle-East. “Now it’s grown into a city instead of a small town,” Abdibaari added.
Given the changes that have taken place here, there is actually a “surprisingly low” number of Somalian immigrants at Wahda United according to Abdibaari, with just 10 of the 37-man squad from the east African country.
Abdibaari Hersi playing with a local team before he went on to found Wahda United. Photo: Peter McClelland
But they are certainly providing an international flavour with players heralding from Ukraine, Congo, Burundi and Angola in the ranks. And that was the idea – to bridge any cultural divide through the love of football, something members of the Hersi family have been actively doing for almost a decade now.
It had started at youth level when the local Blue Devils High School team reached the State Championship Finals in 2015, and went one better a year later to win it as everything clicked.
“They were scoring 13 or 14 goals sometimes,” Abdibaari recalled, chuckling at just how easy it was. “They would be winning by so much that they would try to set the defenders up to score goals.”
The coach at the time was Mike McGraw, who had been there for decades, but he had brought on Abdijabar Hersi (Abdibaari’s older brother) as his assistant. “He [McGraw] was really open minded about it,” explained Abdibaari, as the veteran coach ended up taking advice from the Hersi’s including the father Abdullahi who had been coaching the same group at middle school.
With this shift the team began to play “direct dribbling” rather than the traditional “kick and rush”. After all, many of the Somali players were smaller physically than their US counterparts, but were much more gifted technically.
The whole town were proud of what that team had achieved by embracing its new identity, that “it created an environment for the Lewiston locals to connect to. They liked sports and rooting for their town and seeing a group of immigrants and refugees shed good light on the town made them support it even more”.
Bilal Hersi with his father Abdullahi Abdi after he was named High School All-American for the second consecutive year. @LHSBlueDevils
The next generation of players that progressed from father (Abdullahi Abdi) to son (Abdijabar Hersi) were arguably even better. “That’s when the tiki-taka really started,” said Abdibaari. “You would get coaches coming from all over the state because they were like, ‘I need to catch a Lewiston game, just to see how they play’.”
But despite their talent, many of that group were unable to progress their footballing careers, partly because of the current US system’s focus on College Sports. “A lot of the players didn’t have great English, and so they couldn’t get the grades to get into university, so they end up staying in the town.”
Abdibaari went on, with a genuine sense of regret: “Age passed them by.”
Despite the shift in demographics and attitudes, the opportunities in the area have been traditionally geared towards college kids. Previous teams that tried to compete in affiliated leagues would aim to bring in Division One (College) players over the summer, instead of taking a look at the local talent.
It is a wider problem for US Soccer, not just in Maine. “In general they overlook the immigrant population in the US and that’s where the best talent is,” Abdibaari said.
As with so much of the family’s story though, where there were problems, there were opportunities too. So, to give players from all backgrounds a chance, and to carry into adulthood that sense of 'Wahda' (which means unity) formed briefly during High School, the family decided to register with the UPSL (United Premier Soccer League) which is the fourth tier in the US football pyramid.
They’ve already received lots of help, financial and otherwise, from people in the community supporting the project. And of course, it is that family affair. “Everyone is pitching in on this, even my sister who loves football and will help us on game days because we’ll be playing”.
Don’t be mistaken though, for this isn’t just a social cause: Wahda United are expecting to compete. Abdibaari knows from experience they are better than most teams in the area. He used to travel to places like Minnesota and Ohio as part of a Somali team to play friendlies against college sides.
Abdijabar Hersi with his two most recent titles.
“They would come into it thinking it was a joke or something, but by 15 minutes into the game they’re starting to shout insults because they can’t handle the level we came to play at”.
The head coach will be Abdijabar who, after the success with Blue Devils, took his skills to nearby Portland where he coached several of the new recruits at High School there.
“He’s worked all over the state, and usually goes where he can help other African kids”. His experience and presence in the community has helped bring “cohesion and discipline” (something passed down from their father) to complement raw talent.
But the Hersi family’s impact has gone even further than just the State of Maine, now they are giving back in a sporting sense to the homeland their parents had fled.
Abdibaari’s younger brother Bilal, aged 21, has been capped by the Somalia national team twice despite never setting foot in the country. There in the training camp, held in Tanzania because Fifa still deems Somalia as too dangerous to host international matches, were fellow American-based players such as Abdi Mohamed and Siad Haji and a host of players raised in Europe, many of whom barely spoke Somali.
They are currently the worst ranked side in CAF but they are taking a leaf out of the book of the highest ranked side in Africa, Morocco, who reached the World Cup semi-finals with a majority of the squad having been born outside of the country.
It is likely a step too far to suggest that 30 years after Abdullahi Abdi took a small group of athletes to Atlanta to compete in the Olympics, his son could lead Somalia out in their first World Cup in the country of his birth. It would be the stuff of dreams. But it seems the Hersi family they are already living out their own version of the American dream, not founded in individual pursuits but the collective growth of a community.
One pass, one dribble, one goal at a time.