Driving the lane for the Southwestern College basketball team, Hassan Farah has taken a few elbows and his share of pushing and shoving.
Cakewalk. Life off the court is far more challenging.
Farah is a Somali refugee and a Muslim. He escaped civil war and death marches in Africa, but faces racism in a land that can play rough with Muslims. He is a newly-minted American who has lived as a tumbleweed, rolling across the continent until he put down roots in Chula Vista.
At four years of age, Farah left war-torn Somalia for Atlanta and finally ended up in San Diego with his grandmother.
“I thought I was in heaven,” he said. “Everything was so different. It was civilized here. There were paved streets and lights everywhere. Everything was so convenient. I was living the good life. Now I’m Americanized and spoiled, I sometimes forget how good I have it.”
He has not seen his parents since he left Somalia and does not know them well.
“If I were to see them now I wouldn’t know how to react,” he said. “I mean, how would you act if you went to visit people that you haven’t seen in 18 years? These people are my parents, but I don’t know them like that.”
Farah’s parents currently live in Kenya and are trying to leave because of escalating violence. He said he talks to his mother three times a week on the phone.
“It’s weird to talk to them,” he said. “I do things at 100 percent because of them, so I can help them. It’s really tough on me. I work at Delta Airlines at 3:50 a.m., get off at 9 a.m. and go to school the rest of the day. Earlier this semester, I’d have basketball games, too. I always thought, if I got more rest, I could play better, but I have to sacrifice. I have to support my mother somehow.”
Farah said he tells his teammates how lucky they are that their families come to watch them play every game.
“My grandmother only went to one of my games and that was for senior night in high school,” he said. “I’d play like Michael Jordan if my parents were here to watch me play.”
Farah said he will play basketball with the Somalian national team throughout Europe for the summer and plans on transferring to a D-1 university in the near future. After everything he has experienced, he has continued to stay focused on the goals he has set for himself.
“You learn a lot when things don’t go your way,” said Farah. “You have to suffer to get that reward in the end.”
Farah said he can speak four languages (English, Ethiopian, Swahili and Kenyan) but noted that English was the hardest to learn. He is half-Somalian and half-Ethiopian, but admitted not being in touch with his native cultures.
“I’m too Americanized now, but knowing where I’m from, my background and what my culture practices is enough for me,” said Farah. “My culture is very tribal. All the different groups of people hate each other (in Somalia), that’s why I never got into it.”
A 21-year-old, 6-foot guard, Farah is a business major at Southwestern College, but he said his ultimate goal is to become an orthodontist.
“There are a lot of people (in Africa) with messed up teeth,” he said. “But braces are expensive. I want to help people. I want to go back to Somalia and open a few free dental clinics there.”
Farah discovered basketball in the seventh grade. When he first played competitively he was surprised how well he did. As his skills improved, he joined travel teams and was able to play around the country.
Basketball is both sanctuary and battleground.
“I feel relaxed, yet anxious when I’m on the court,” he said. “Basketball is so many things rolled into one. It’s like a chess game because I have to anticipate the other person’s move. But it’s like playing music, because the team has to be smooth and on rhythm.”
Teammate Dominique Miller has been playing basketball with Farah since high school.
“He is the same guy on and off the court,” Miller said. “Hassan is dedicated, a hard worker and a good leader. He just wants to do whatever it takes to win.”
Farah said his high school basketball coach punished him by making him join the cross-country team as a freshman. Although he completed the season, he said no to pursuing cross-country any further.
“I like playing team sports,” said Farah. “I like having a shoulder to lean on and people I get along with. I didn’t really like cross-country because it focuses too much on the individual. But I did well. I beat out a lot of guys. The cross-country coach said it would be easier for me to get scholarships for cross-country but I said no, my passion was for basketball.”
Farah almost lost his basketball career—and his life—due to a brutal attack just outside his San Diego home when he was a junior at Crawford High School. He said he stepped outside of his house and someone clubbed him on the back of the head.
“I was in a coma for a day,” said Farah. “I had daylong headaches for months, and my body wasn’t moving like I wanted it to. I was in rehab for a month, and two months later, I came back but not fully. It broke my heart that I couldn’t play basketball.”
Farah said the motive was never established and the crime remains unsolved. He said he does not know if he was attacked for his race, nationality, religion or for money. He never saw the perpetrator.
After a game in his senior year, Farah said he woke up with shoulder pain. He went to the doctor for an MRI and was placed on six months of rehab. When he felt strong enough to play again Farah tried out for the National Junco League in Nebraska. Playing basketball against other Californians was easy, it was more of a challenge to play against ballers from the East Coast and basketball-crazy states in the Midwest.
“On the East Coast, there’s a lot more talent and more travelling,” he said. “It’s very competitive. More physical, fast paced and everyone gets to the bucket. They don’t do jump shots. On the West Coast basketball players are better shooters.”
Moving to Columbus, Nebraska was a shock, he said. Living in a small town with a lot of people who were not used to African-Americans, immigrants or Muslims was challenging.
“Everyone knows the guy with an Afro,” said Farah. “It snowed a lot. I became a man when I lived in Nebraska. It was hard having to live on my own. It was hard to deal with a lot of people being racist toward me.”
Farah said he wished more people better understood the Muslim community.
“The U.S. used to be so diverse and understanding,” he said. “But after 9/11 it got complicated. People associate being Muslim with being a bad guy, that we’re the bad people because of our faith.”
Since 9/11 the American-Muslim community reported “more than half – 55 percent – say it is been more difficult being Muslim in the U.S.,” according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study. Discrimination and hostility were not uncommon to the Muslims and groups who share similar characteristics to the Muslim community. Since 2001 there has been a 1,700 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes, according to the FBI. In 2010 the FBI reported 160 anti-Muslim hate crimes. “It was the highest level of anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2001, the year of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the FBI reported 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Too many people believe what they see on TV,” said Farah. “Muslim is a faith that teaches discipline through religion. It keeps me level. I do see hope, though. The younger generations of America are more understanding.”
After playing basketball in Nebraska for a season Farah came back to San Diego County and played at SWC. Head basketball coach John Cosentino taught him discipline, he said, but there is one thing that coach told him that really stuck with him.
“If you make excuses now, you’re going to make excuses the rest of your life,” he said. “That quote really stuck with me and that’s probably the best thing Coach Cos taught me.”