Neighborhood Athletics works towards uplifting Columbus’ Somali Bantu youth
The Columbus Dispatch
By Peter Gill
Saturday, September 9, 2023
On September 5, 2023, at Sullivant Elementary in Columbus, Ohio, USA, Balqisah Haji, age 10, skillfully dribbles past her younger brother, Sabir Haji, age 7, during a basketball practice held by Neighborhood Athletics. Neighborhood Athletics is a nonprofit organization founded by Somali Bantu youths that provides coaching in various sports to kids ranging from elementary to high school. The photograph captured by Adam Cairns for the Columbus Dispatch perfectly captures the dedication and talent of these young athletes.
Inside the gym at Sullivant Elementary School, located on the West Side of Columbus, it’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. Children are actively running and maneuvering around the basketball court, their sneakers emitting squeaks as they pivot and sprint.
Fardowsa Haji, aged 13, wearing pink pants and an embroidered black headscarf, is the smallest participant among the ten boys and girls scrimmaging. However, her height does not hinder her. She swiftly moves down the court, takes a shot, and skillfully scores a three-pointer.
Coach Abdullahi Kassim, observing from the sidelines, confidently states, “She’s going to be one of the best players to come out of the West Side, yes sir.”
Shortly after, Kassim becomes dissatisfied with the players’ teamwork, ranging from second to ninth grade, and decides to step onto the court.
“What are we supposed to be working on?” he rhetorically questions. “Spacing, screening, cutting, communicating. We can stop and run if I don’t see that.”
On September 5, 2023, at Sullivant Elementary in Columbus, Ohio, USA, Asha Mohamed, aged 14, attempts to dribble between Saleh Abdulkadir, aged 15, and Abdirisaka Sidaw, also aged 15, during a basketball practice held by Neighborhood Athletics. Similar to Balqisah Haji’s story, Asha attends the West High School and expresses her gratitude for having a coach and team from her own community.
“You don’t have to try so hard to fit in; you can just be yourself,” she shares with The Dispatch. “Usually, on a school team, there aren’t many Somali Bantus. Sometimes, you get treated differently.”
‘Another way to give back’
Kassim, aged 35, established Neighborhood Athletics as a volunteer-run nonprofit organization. It offers sports and academic programs to youth residing in the Hilltop, South Franklinton, and nearby neighborhoods. Kassim and most of his players originate from the Somali Bantu community, an ethnic minority group from southern Somalia that has found a home in Columbus.
Playing basketball saved these kids from the harms they could have been exposed to in their communities. Neighborhood Athletics provides a sense of belonging and instills essential life skills, as emphasized by Asha Mohamed.
Sidi Adem, aged 20, a former participant and current volunteer with Neighborhood Athletics, shares his personal experience, stating that playing basketball with Coach Kassim “saved [him] from the world.”
Gun violence and poverty are prevalent in the South Park and Wedgewood apartment complexes, where many of the players live. Kassim believes that the presence of positive male role models and helping hands is crucial for these kids.
“In our community, most parents are either busy working or have their own things going on. Growing up, I had coaches who interacted with me and provided a different perspective. Although my dream was to become a professional athlete, that didn’t happen. So, I wanted to find another way to give back,” Kassim explains.
‘It saved me from the world’
Aden Mohamed, the athletic director of Neighborhood Athletics, highlights the significance of the soccer and basketball programs in developing crucial life skills for children.
“They learn to interact with teammates, problem-solve, and find solutions together. When conflicts arise, they have to overcome their differences and work together,” Mohamed states.
While recruiting girls to the program presented its challenges due to cultural barriers within the older generation, Kassim acknowledges that the younger generation of parents is more supportive of girls playing sports. However, female players still face judgment and disapproval from individuals outside of their community during tournaments.
“I tell them they’re role models — there are many girls who look up to them,” Kassim affirms.
Thirteen-year-old Fordowsa Haji, the talented star of the team, expresses her aspiration to become a truck driver when she grows up, inspired by her older brother. Regardless, Kassim hopes that she continues to pursue sports, as he believes she has tremendous potential.
“She’s exceptionally talented. Whether it’s basketball or running, she’s destined for greatness,” he confidently declares.
Peter Gill, a journalist partnered with Report for America, covers topics such as immigration, new American communities, and religion for The Dispatch. If you appreciate his work, you can contribute to Report for America through a tax-deductible donation at: bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.