Cleveland High School football player Khalid Mohamed, whose Muslim family emigrated to the U.S. eight years ago, balances his new life with the traditions and values he learned in Kenya.
The social experiment started with bright red socks and a white prayer robe draped over the 6-foot-5, 280-pound body of Khalid Mohamed.
Khalid and his classmates from Cleveland High School were attending the YMCA Youth and Government program with their teacher, Adam Burden, and Khalid, a practicing Muslim, had an idea. Days before leaving, Khalid joked with Burden about wearing his robe to the event so they could watch people’s reactions.
And then he did it.
“We all just sat and watched the discomfort of the adults and students alike around him,” Burden said. “And the stares.”
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Khalid enjoyed the whole spectacle, sidling up to those staring at him to see how they’d respond. But Khalid’s mock social experiment revealed a broader reality for the 18-year-old: The two worlds he must navigate while also playing football as a senior in high school.
On one side are his religion and past; Khalid and his family moved to the United States from Africa when he was 10. On the other side are the United States and the present.
“The two paths seem to become mutually exclusive,” Burden said. “And there’s a magic to the way he handles things.”
At a practice earlier this season, Cleveland coach Ronn Jackson huddled his team and looked at Khalid, his big offensive lineman.
“You’ve got to represent this year,” Jackson said.
“Yeah, I’m going to represent, Coach,” Khalid responded. “I’m Khalid.”
Jackson couldn’t believe how far Khalid’s confidence had come.
In one of Khalid’s first games as a freshman, he squared off against a bigger player from Nathan Hale. The Hale lineman kept grabbing Khalid’s face mask and making him shake his head yes or no. Khalid didn’t know how to respond to the aggression, so he didn’t.
Khalid started playing football only after Jackson persuaded him to join the team at freshman orientation. His parents weren’t interested in him playing, but they also never said no.
“If they would have said no,” Khalid said, “I probably wouldn’t have played.”
He kept getting better, kept working out, and was named first-team All-Metro Sound Division as a junior last year. His parents still haven’t seen him play, but that’s OK with Khalid.
“A lot of kids need football or sports for the structure,” Jackson said. “Khalid’s using it as almost a resource to venture out, to see what else is out there.
“He’s not trying to cut the cord from his parents or culture. He’s just trying to see what else is out there.”
Khalid and his family — he has six brothers and one sister — arrived to the U.S. in darkness. It had taken two bus rides in Kenya, a stop for a medical examination and a flight across the Atlantic, but on a June night in 2004, Khalid stepped foot in America for the first time.
When Khalid and his family drove through Jacksonville, Fla., after their flight, he couldn’t get over the city’s glowing buildings. He’d never seen so many lights.
As the car sped along carrying Khalid away from the airport that night, he caught his reflection in the window. His jaw was dropped.
After his family stopped for the night at a family friend’s, Khalid marveled at all the stuff that filled the house. And he couldn’t get over the sheer size of the building.
“That’s when I knew things were going to be different,” he says now.
Not only did Khalid need to learn a new language, but he also had to adapt to a completely new set of cultural and material norms.
Khalid had never thought about different religions before coming to the U.S., where mosques were far scarcer.
In Kenya, most everyone around him was Muslim, so he just assumed that’s the way it was, even in America.
“Youthful ignorance,” he says now.
He once ate pepperoni pizza at lunch before a fellow Muslim student stopped him and explained why he shouldn’t do that. Khalid had never come across pork before.
“That wasn’t even in my head,” said Mukhtar Isak, Khalid’s best friend who is Somali and was born in Qatar. “But now this is normal? That was a big oomph.”
Africa, in many ways, seems like a distant memory.
“It feels like my whole life has been in high school,” Khalid says.
And yet he doesn’t want to forget where he came from. He’s fiercely protective of his religion, urging fellow Muslim students to correct people when they mispronounce their names. He’s thinking of getting his minor in Islamic studies in college.
For a time in middle school, Khalid barely prayed during the day because the school didn’t have a place for him to go. Now he prays in a designated room at Cleveland or in the locker room.
“Khalid doesn’t seem like he’s got this internal struggle of, what side am I on?” said Burden, who has known Khalid since middle school. “He’s on his own side. That’s what makes him unique. He doesn’t get swallowed up by how he identifies and what he identifies with. He’s still him at the end.”
His upbringing and family have provided him with a foundation — respecting elders, discipline, humility — but a struggle exists. Khalid doesn’t go out late with friends. He’s never been to a school dance.
“I don’t talk much at home,” Khalid said. “I put up a barrier between me and my parents because of the cultural differences. I have to do it to survive because it’s tough out here. It’s tough in America.”
Added Jackson, who said Cleveland has a large group of Somali and Ethiopian students: “Man, I’ve seen it. A lot of these kids still feel like they’re caged in.”
Megan Isakson, the education program manager for the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWa) in Seattle, notices a similar disconnect. ReWa frequently hosts parent workshops, including one with a Somali group.
Isakson said ReWa shows a 30-minute video that illuminates the tension between immigrant students and parents. At the end of the video, Isakson said, “they’re all like, ‘That’s exactly how I feel!’ “
“Our students really do have both worlds going on,” she said, “and they are kind of in that gray area in the middle.”
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Twilight?’ ” Khalid asks one day.
He’s sitting inside a hallway at Cleveland after school wearing sweats, a hoodie and sandals with socks. He looks like a football player on an off day.
“You know where their house is in Twilight?” he continues, picturing the architecturally appealing house tucked among the woods in the Hollywood blockbuster.
“I want a house like that,” he says. “Not deep in the forest, but on the edge. I love nature. In Africa, there were wild animals everywhere. They’d be walking in the streets.”
Africa and the United States. Past and present. The meshing of two worlds.
Not everyone in Khalid’s position has harmony. Some lost their past. Some never accepted the future.
When he has kids of his own, he has an idea for how he will keep the balance.
“I don’t want to stray too far from my religion, but I think I would understand the social pressures that they are going through,” he said. “I would not be as hard on them as my parents are on me. I would still lay boundaries where you cannot get to this point.
“It’s a thin line. I’ll let you get near it, but never touch it or cross it.”