It wasn’t an easy road to life in the United States for the Ali brothers of the Dickinson High School boys’ soccer team.
Mohamed Ali (yes, that’s his real name) and his younger brother Ahmed, were born in Saudi Arabia but then moved to the northern part of the Sudan to eventually receive a visa to live in the United States.
“It was really hard,” said Mohamed Ali, who says that he hears cracks about the name he shares with the late former heavyweight boxing champion. “But we wanted to get a better chance at a good education in America.”
“I was really excited about it,” Ahmed Ali said. “I was looking forward to it. I thought there would be a lot of opportunity for us to find our dreams. If we went to college, our chances in life would be better.”
So in order to come to America, the brothers had to leave Saudi Arabia a few years ago to then live in the Sudan for two years before making the journey west to the United States.
“It was really sad when we left,” Mohamed Ali said. “We left a lot of family and friends there.”
One of the family members left behind was their father, Bashir.
“My dad had to wait four years before he could come,” Mohamed Ali said. “It was tough not having him around.”
If there was one constant the Ali brothers had in their lives, it was the sport of soccer.
“I started playing regularly when I was about nine years old,” Ahmed Ali said. “It was the top sport in Saudi Arabia.”
Mohamed was a late bloomer.
“I was about 10 when I started,” Mohamed Ali said. “But my brother and I always played together. My dad was a soccer player, too. I liked the intensity of the sport.”
The brothers honed their soccer skills on the streets in Saudi Arabia.
“Sometimes, we would play at the school,” Ahmed Ali said.
When the time came to immigrate to the United States, the family chose Jersey City, because of its ethnic diversity.
“We wanted to come to Jersey City because there were a lot of Arabs already living here,” Mohamed Ali said. “We knew that there were a lot of Muslims already here.”
Ahmed Hassanein, an assistant soccer coach at Dickinson, said that there is a strong Sudanese contingency in Jersey City as well.
“The Muslim community has grown tremendously in Jersey City over the last five or six years,” Hassanein said.
There was only one problem the brothers encountered.
“We didn’t speak English,” Mohamed Ali said. “We only spoke Arabic. My dad would always tell me that we had to learn English. I was afraid to learn English.”
The brothers said that they learned a lot about English from watching television. And their favorite show to watch to learn the language? None other than reruns of “Family Matters,” yes, the comedy featuring the character Steve Urkel, played by actor Jaleel White.
When they settled in Jersey City, the brothers enrolled at Dickinson High. Of course, joining the soccer team was a given.
“I picked up a lot of English from being on the team,” Mohamed Ali said. “Coach [Hassanein, who speaks Arabic] explained everything to us.”
“I was a little afraid of learning English,” Ahmed Ali said. “But it’s all good now. I think it took me about five months to learn the language. It was a big responsibility. It wasn’t all about soccer. I knew I could get more friends if I learned to speak English.”
At first, their style of playing soccer didn’t translate well to the other Dickinson players.
“I have to say that I was too selfish with the ball,” Mohamed Ali said. “I knew that there was going to be a lot of responsibility on me playing center midfield. Coach Rene [Portillo, the Rams’ head coach] got that out of me and made me a better player.”
Ahmed Ali became a fixture on the Rams’ forward line.
“I knew that having my brother in the center midfield, he would pass me the ball more,” Ahmed Ali said. “We know each other well and know where each other are on the field.”
“I communicate with him a lot,” Mohamed Ali said. “I like playing on the same team with him.”
At the beginning of the 2020 season, Ahmed Ali suffered a setback. He took an elbow to the face in the first game of the season against Snyder and broke the orbital bone in his eye, requiring surgery.
But Ahmed was able to return and scored all four goals in the Rams’ clutch victory over Memorial, helping the Rams get to a 7-3-1 record overall.
“It was a lot of fun playing this season,” Mohamed Ali said. “I couldn’t ask for a better year. I’m happy to have my brother next to me this year. I told him that he had to play next to me, because he makes me better.”
Portillo said that he’s always dealt with players from a host of different countries, but never had two brothers from Saudi Arabia via the Sudan before.
“One of the biggest challenges I ever had was coaching the two brothers,” Portillo said. “I had to learn how to communicate with them. But they’re both good players. When we got down to it, I found that they were already structured players. Some you have to train like a wild horse and it’s up to you to calm them down. But with these two guys, they made it a real easy transition.”
Mohamed Ali would now like to play college soccer. Portillo has done his due diligence, trying to find Mohamed a college program.
“We’re already receiving calls from colleges,” Portillo said. “The interest is there.”
Mohamed would love to study something in the medical profession.
The younger brother will return to the Rams next fall.
“I would like to become a citizen,” Ahmed Ali said. “I feel like we belong in America. We’ve made a lot of nice friends here.”
The Rams also have three other players who speak Arabic, along with Hassanein.
The brothers were active one last time, helping to collect goods – like food donations and clothes – to help the flood victims in Saudi Arabia in August.
“We can’t forget where we’re from,” Ahmed Ali said. “We’re doing our best to help them. We know what it’s like to need help.”
Like the help the Ali family has received to simply live in Jersey City, the Ali brothers and three younger sisters. These soccer standouts know what it’s like to give back.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com