Handwalla Bwana is a freshman star on the UW men’s soccer team and has the potential to be the best soccer player to come out of Seattle, a city that’s produced Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin. But that only tells part of his story.
Handwalla Bwana felt closest to God in the silence of the night.
Bwana craved the isolation of being the last one in the mosque, allowing his pulse to slow, a sense of peacefulness gradually spreading outward into his bones. Even now he can recall the scent of the room, burnt candles imported from Saudi Arabia. They smelled of cologne and plug-in air fresheners.
“Imagine this room right here,” he says, with a wave of his skinny arm, “with no tables, nothing. Just rows of carpet on the floor.”
He’s sitting in a food-court lounge on the University of Washington’s campus. On this fall day, windows overlook a sparkling Lake Washington. It’s hard to imagine a more disparate scene to what he’s describing.
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Not all that long ago, Seattle’s hottest young soccer prospect was the one who turned out the lights at the refugee camp’s place of worship.
His prayers reflected what was then a sparse reality.
Dear Allah, please grant my mom her hopes and dreams.
Dear Allah, please help us get to America.
Please help us leave this camp.
“I was praying to get my hopes up,” Bwana said. “Make me get the opportunity so that I can help my mom out. That’s all I asked for. I didn’t ask for money. Just give me the chance. Let me make the most of it.”
In a few weeks, Bwana could very well be named the Pac-12 freshman soccer player of the year. His family is settled, a short drive from campus.
Bwana’s college coach says he has the potential to become the best soccer player to ever come out of the city that produced Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin – and soon, he could be wearing Sounders rave green.
And yet, on the cusp of everything he could have dreamed of in that Kenyan refugee camp, sometimes the 18-year-old Handwalla Bwana wishes he’d never left.
Somewhere along the line, his late-night prayers were answered.
A first memory of America: Sitting the back row of a plane that’d just landed at Atlanta International Airport, temporarily paralyzed by fear.
A second memory: Getting so woozy by the unfamiliar smell of coffee rising out of an airport Starbucks – ironic, given his ultimate destination — that his mom had to push him around the terminal in a wheelchair, little brother trailing behind with their belongings in tow.
The Bwanas’ immigrant experience is a dizzying portrait of what it’s like to start fresh in a country wholly unlike your own – where dreams for a better life can get caught in the undertow of what’s been left behind.
“The first year in America was hell,” Handwalla said. “We didn’t know how the bathroom worked. We didn’t know how to shower. We didn’t know what a fridge was. It was a completely different life.”
The Bwana family spent the previous six years at Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya before getting approval for resettlement in the U.S. in 2010.
For Handwalla, looking back, his experience at Kakuma was downright tranquil. Sure, their mud hut was stifling during the relentless summers, but that just meant he could sleep under the stars.
Mornings were spent at school, evenings in the silence of the mosque. Days were spent playing soccer, always soccer, in the sand until feet cracked and bled. He was surrounded by family and friends. Those six years were the happiest of his childhood.
In America, Handwalla was often the one tasked with setting up the nuts and bolts of their new life – setting up utility payments, figuring out how to pay rent. He picked up English only in bits and pieces. Even the bus schedule was a bewildering blur of numbers and names.
“School was stressful,” Handwalla said. “I’m the kind of person who is really social. But if you don’t speak the language, how do I get involved? I didn’t have any friends. I would sit down alone at lunch.
“I would just come home crying. It took me, what, a month, two months just to figure out how to open my locker?”
After a few months in Atlanta, subsisting on a diet of bread and milk only slightly more satiating than the daily flour rations back at Kakuma, they found their way to Seattle later in 2010 through distant relatives.
Fatima got a job at a local Goodwill but often found herself too exhausted to cook for her two young boys, regularly dispatching them to a nearby Subway sandwich shop to pick up dinner. Handwalla, especially, felt for her.
“‘Why are we here?’” Handwalla relays a constant refrain. “I didn’t want to be here anymore. I wanted to go back where I was. My life was free. I didn’t have to worry about anything. Here, that first year was the most stressful thing ever.”
The day they arrived in America, he says looking back now, “was the best and worst day of my life.”
Handwalla still visits Fatima’s Aurora Ave. apartment every couple of days. Mother and son still talk on the phone daily, always in their native Swahili.
“She’s very protective,” Handwalla said. “She doesn’t want me to become an American. She still wants me to understand the culture that I came from.”
Back in high school, he once went to a tournament with the Sounders Academy in California without telling her. In the first five minutes of their first game, an aggressive tackle tweaked his knee, and he had to sit out the rest of the weekend.
Handwalla called her in tears, explaining what had happened.
Fatima’s response? “‘That was me. I made that happen.’
“Whenever I disobey my mom, I know that bad stuff is going to happen,” Handwalla said. “It’s a cultural thing. I need to make sure my mom is on my side.”
Her predictive powers can be a force for good, too: That nightmarish first week in Atlanta, Fatima pulled her young son aside.
You are going to do things no one in our family has ever done.
“And I have,” Handwalla said. “I don’t know how she dealt with it. Coming to America was hard. That’s what drives me, really. That’s what makes me want to care for her. She has done so much for me.”
The Bwanas still have family back in Kakuma. Many of the friends Handwalla used to play soccer with in the sand are still there, too. Fatima sends whatever funds she can – and Handwalla does, too, with dreams of one day giving back with a professional soccer player’s salary.
“There is a lot of pressure around me,” Handwalla said. “What if I fail? What’s going to happen? But I don’t think about that all the time. I look forward.”
Handwalla is an astute student of the game. He stays late after Huskies practices, honing his skills, studying film, learning from his mistakes. You don’t get to this level, having experienced all of the adversity he’s pushed through, without an extraordinary kind of commitment.
That being said: There were also times when Handwalla bucked at this newfound authority, when he daydreamed of the freedom of Kakuma, when his only concern was how many of his friends were going to be able to come out and play soccer that afternoon.
“In the three years I had him,” said Jon Smith, one of his former Seattle United coaches, “there were a couple of times where if he makes the wrong decision, goes down the wrong path, hangs out with the wrong crowd and decides not to show up, that everything he aspires for could have been lost.”
Tom Walker, who with his wife Karen helped the Bwanas find their footing during those chaotic first few months in Seattle, recalls how Handwalla was perpetually late for out-of-town tournaments. Tom remembers showing up at the Bwana apartment to pick him up one morning, Handwalla arriving at the door bleary-eyed just out of bed and leaving the team’s star player behind much to the chagrin of his coaches.
“He’s a charmer,” said Karen, described by Handwalla as the “bad cop” in his life. “People like him. And people really want to help him, which generally is great. Sometimes, he learns that he can smile and life gets a little easier, which doesn’t teach you long-term strategies. I’m the only one that doesn’t fall for that smile.”
A guidance counselor once pulled the Walkers aside with some sobering advice: Success for Handwalla would be graduating from high school and getting into a community college.
Midway through his junior year at Ballard High, it became apparent just how much of a gap he needed to make up in order to meet the requirements to play at UW.
“There were times when we were like, ‘There’s no way,’” Tom Walker said. “He just wasn’t applying himself as much as he could.”
Handwalla was declared NCAA eligible just weeks before the Huskies opened training camp this August. That he cut it so close was illustrative of just how fine a line he still walks between success and failure. Even halfway into a breakout freshman campaign, there’s little in the way of a safety net should he tumble.
Sometimes, before games, Handwalla seeks out of the quiet space of the team’s film room, poring over passages of the Koran.
Here, he can connect with a long-ago feeling of peacefulness. He takes deep breaths, willing the pressure to recede, if only for a moment.
“What’s going to happen is going to happen,” Handwalla said. “But the pressure there is a lot. It would be a big disappointment for my mom, really, if I didn’t make the most of my opportunity, if I didn’t prove that I deserve to be here.”
The Koran keeps him calm. His slender finger traces over the words as he reads.
“The style of play I play is really calm on the ball, playing the way you pray,” Handwalla said. “Reading that keeps me calm, not nervous, ready for the game.”
At the mosque in Kakuma, he prayed for an opportunity to make a better life for his family.
Finally alone in a cramped room at UW’s campus, he asks God to give him the strength to make the most of it.