Refugee comfort zone: Olympic training and US citizenship for newborns

Refugee Bill Clinton Hadam finds a comfort zone in elite Olympic training. And his family now includes its first US citizens - newborn twins.

Joanne Ciccarello / Staff
Bill Clinton Hadam (l.) has been selected for an elite Olympic training soccer team. It's part of the comfort zone his whole refugee family is easing into.
Joanne Ciccarello / Staff
A refugee family eases into a comfort zone: Seven-month-old twins Daniel and Abigail are the first US citizens in Bill Clinton Hadam’s family. Also with Bill (l.) are his father and mother, Hassan and Dawami, and his brother Igey.
Joanne Ciccarello / Staff
Joanne Ciccarello / Staff

"You can't hit a girl," was Bill Clinton Hadam's advice.

This summer, when 10-year-old Emmanuel Sango arrived in Atlanta, friends Bill Clinton and Igey Muzeleya were anxious to help him adjust to American life.

The boys' families had become best friends as refugees in Tanzania's Mkugwa refugee camp. Four years ago, Bill, his brother Igey, and their parents had resettled in Georgia; their first years here were lonely, hungry, and baffling. Today, they have hard-won insights to share with the old friends who recently joined them.

Bill's warning to Emmanuel was practical. But Igey, a devotee of Nickelodeon and an astute observer of third-grade social mores, thought it didn't go far enough.

A few days earlier, his friend had been using a pit toilet and playing with a homemade slingshot. Igey knew from experience that Emmanuel's new classmates at Indian Creek Elementary - where he and his brother had spent a miserable year, before escaping to a charter school - would be ruthless.

"He didn't know McDonalds," Igey explains. "He didn't even know Burger King."

In 2008, the Monitor began a year-long seriest that followed Bill (now 11), Igey (now 9), and their parents, as the newly arrived refugee family adjusted to life in the United States. When the project ended in September 2009, their future was uncertain. Today, challenges remain, particularly for Bill's missing sister and nephew - and changes to the family have added new ones. But one thing seems clear: Although the boys won't become citizens for another couple of years, they're Americans now.

Take Bill. In 2006, the 7-year-old left Mkugwa camp for his new home in Atlanta. In Mkugwa, soccer had been his passion, played with balls he made himself, out of plastic bags and twine. In Georgia, even before he spoke enough English to participate in class, he joined a soccer team at school. Shell Ramirez, the mom who directed the program, spotted Bill's talent and persuaded the local Y to give him a scholarship to play on its team. American parents and coaches quickly "adopted" the shy African, buying him balls, cleats, and other gear, and shuttling him to practices and tournaments. Bill's joy on the field was magnetic, says Jeff Newbury, director of coaching for the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA soccer club, who has coached the boy for nearly three years.

And he was good. Very good. Bill and his best friend, Lagos Kunga - a refugee from Angola and Bill's partner in mischief since he arrived at the roach-infested apartment complex that was both boys' first American home - are such strong players that Mr. Newbury says it's as though lightning struck his tiny soccer program twice.

"Lagos is a once-in-a-lifetime phenom kid," he says, "one of the best players in the country - if not the best, he's in the top three or four."

In 18 years of coaching soccer, and playing professionally himself, Newbury has never seen a better player. Bill is nearly, but not quite, a match for his friend. He's a year younger than the boys on his team, so Bill, "if he played in his own age group, would be the best ... every single time he steps on the field," says Newbury. "He's an amazing, amazing player."

This fall, both boys had a big break when they tried out against hundreds of top Georgia players for the state's Olympic Development Team, the ground floor of the Olympic soccer program, from which future US Olympic and World Cup teams will largely be drawn. Bill was one of only 40 players his age to make the team.

"I was really proud of myself," he admits shyly.

Lagos, a year older, made the team for his age group as well. The practices and games will bring both boys into contact with top coaches - and later, with college recruiters. Players must try out for the program every year, and if Bill continues to make the team, and make progress academically through high school, "it's not a question of is he going to get a college scholarship - the question is where's he going to go," says Newbury, who spends 10 hours a week with the young player and thinks a lot about his future beyond the field.

"I could care less if he makes it as a professional soccer player," he says. "I want Bill to go to college. I want him to have a job, and have his own family, and I want him to live a life that doesn't exist in the world he came from."

On the Soccer field, Bill is not just a world away from Mkugwa camp - he's competing against kids from an America that looks very little like the multiethnic refugee enclave of Clarkston, Ga., where he now lives, or the nurturing and hyper-diverse International Community School (ICS), where he attends fifth grade. On his own Olympic trainee team, Bill is one of a handful of nonwhite kids, and the only African. Other players arrive in SUVs with sparkling gear and parents to cheer them on. Bill's dad works the night shift at a poultry plant; his mom works overnight, too, on Georgia State University's housekeeping staff. So Bill rides with Newbury, who buys him chicken fingers and a milkshake before dropping him home, sometimes at an empty apartment.Academically, Bill and his brother are still catching up. But ICS teachers say they're hungry to learn. Halfway through third grade, Igey is reading "Frog and Toad"-ish books with ease, and his teacher says he seems "ready to make a leap." Bill has a strong interest in science: poisonous spiders, venomous snakes, and questions like this recent ornithological gem: "How come birds can learn English, but we can't learn Bird?"When the Monitor first reported on Bill, as he was finishing second grade at ICS, teachers were worried about the sensitive boy who cried almost daily. They're still concerned - because, in the throes of early puberty, Bill spends so much class time giggling with friends. But teachers say his sensitivity is evolving into a robust sense of social justice. Last spring, during a unit on civil rights, he asked who had been responsible for starting racial segregation in America."I think I hate that person," he said quietly. [Hear a previous interview with Bill.]

But the biggest change in both boys' lives this year has been welcoming two new family members: not older sister Neema and nephew Toni, who remain in Tanzania, but a younger sister and brother.

Bill's mom, Dawami Lenguyanga, was almost 42 when she got pregnant last fall, for the fifth time. Her first two children, Fidelis and Neema, were 10 and 8 in 1996 when their Hutu father was shot in their Kigali living room in reprisal killings after the Rwandan genocide. As a massacre consumed their neighborhood, Dawami and the children ran out the back door. In the crush of screaming, fleeing people, Dawami lost sight of Fidelis. If he is alive today, he is 24 years old.

Dawami and Neema ran on, all the way to Tanzania. There, on the way to register at the United Nations office, they met Hassan Mwanasumpikwa, a fellow refugee fleeing torture and bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hassan remembers seeing Dawami waiting in line and thinking, "Eh, she's beautiful!" The two were married the following year in Mkugwa refugee camp, where sons Bill and Igey were born, joining their parents and sister in stateless limbo.

This time around, between Dawami's age, the twins, and other health problems, her pregnancy was considered high-risk. At 26 weeks, her water broke and she was rushed to the hospital. For a nightmarish week, she lay watching two heart monitors flicker on and off beside her bed. ICS staff and parents, and Bill's soccer network, came together to care for the boys while Hassan shuttled back and forth between work and hospital. On May 24, twins Abigael Naomi Hassan and Daniel Benjamen Hassan were born, each weighing less than two pounds.

The babies, named for Dawami's favorite Bible stories, spent two months side by side in pink and blue incubators in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home to the family's new apartment. Medicaid covered Dawami's prenatal care, her hospital stay, and the twins' touch-and-go first months of life - and it continues to pay for their checkups. Today, despite the challenges that face micropreemies, the bright-eyed babies are learning to sit up, and their pediatrician, Dr. Ronald Homer, says they are doing "just wonderfully: healthy, developmentally doing very, very well." Igey is a natural with them, toting the tiny 7-month-olds around by their armpits.

Their new home is a far cry from the roach-infested apartment where the family spent their first three years in America. A few familiar photos remain, but faux-leather couches, towers of artificial roses, and a 50-inch flat-screen TV now dominate the living room. In the fridge, next to the plate of whole fried fish, there's a jar of Goober Grape.

For their first few years in Georgia, the family seemed to have one hapless encounter after another with US laws and customs. Once, Bill's mom was sent to court over a demagnetized subway card. Another time, a driver T-boned her car; she was found at fault, and when she tried to pay the ticket on what she thought was the appointed date, she discovered a warrant out for her arrest for failing to pay it or to appear in court earlier that month.

The Sango family's arrival in July showed how far Bill's family has come. When Dawami heard her friends would be moving to Atlanta, she visited all the complexes near hers that had three-bedroom apartments for rent. When she'd found a safe, affordable one, she sent a message to Seth Earl, the Sangos' case manager at Lutheran Services of Georgia, requesting that he place them there. She hoped their kids could go to school together.

Instead, Mr. Earl placed the Sangos in a complex near Dawami and Hassan's former home. Unfamiliar with ICS, he says, he was daunted by its application process and waiting list. So he enrolled Emmanuel and his sister at Indian Creek Elementary, the school where Bill and Igey spent a disastrous first year before finding ICS. The young charter school for refugee, immigrant, and US-born kids works particularly intensively with newcomers to the country. In 3-1/2 years there, Bill and Igey have each worked with dozens of teachers, assistants, mentors, tutors, and reading and English as a Second Language specialists. No other elementary school in Georgia takes such a comprehensive approach to educating young refugees.

Still, Hassan persevered on behalf of the Sangos, helping father Kapokela Sango get a job at the poultry plant where he works. Three months passed before the family of seven received the food stamps they should have gotten upon arrival in the US; Dawami and Hassan filled the gap.

But the Sangos saved Hassan and Dawami, too. In September, after a month of maternity leave, Dawami had to return to work or lose her job. Mom Eva Sango offered to care for the twins every night in her cramped apartment, along with her own five kids.

Igey often goes along, too, and sleeps over. He and Emmanuel have become best friends. Two years ago, Igey was so lonely and anxious to fit in that he claimed to be from Georgia, and insisted that everyone call him "John." One day, he started to cry, explaining in English that he could feel himself forgetting Swahili, and he knew that, when he did, he would have to find a new family that could understand him. Today, that scared little boy is comfortable in his skin, and dryly hilarious in both languages.

Every November, Igey and Bill's school holds a parade on United Nations Day. It's a bright, noisy, tear-jerker of a celebration, where students dress in traditional costumes and walk behind the flags of the countries where they were born - or countries of their choice. In first grade, when Igey was learning about his past, he walked with the group with the Tanzanian flag; in second, in honor of his dad, he represented Congo. This year, he was nowhere to be seen; it looked as if he might have missed school. Then, as the end of the parade was winding its way toward the crowd of shivering parents, Igey appeared, in his little gray hoodie, and strutted across the parking lot, holding up one side of a big American flag.

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