When Abdi Maqtal and Siyad Matan first met, their sport of choice was basketball.
The two refugees — Maqtal (Aub-dee Mock-tall) from Ethiopia and Matan (See-yawd May-tan) from Kenya — found each other in Boise the way one might come upon a needle in a haystack.
Both came to the United States from African countries where the primary language is Somali, and neither was much more than a year into learning the English language.
“It was a big transition going into it,” Maqtal said. “People would say, ‘Hey, why are you doing this bad at school?’ But I had never been to school before. This was a whole new thing.”
For fun, the boys joined the cross county team at South Junior High. They weren’t good about attending practice regularly, and it took encouragement from teammates and longtime Borah High coach Tim Severa to convince them to make a commitment to the team once they reached the high school level.
“I used to slack off a lot, to be honest,” Matan said. “I would barely show up to practice.”
Maqtal is now a senior for the Lions and Matan a junior. Matan won the 5A District Three meet last week at Eagle Island State Park, and Maqtal was third. The Lions finished 17 points short of the team championship, but they believe their chance is much better at state with the return of No. 4 runner Patrick Mugenzi, who missed the meet for disciplinary reasons.
The state meet for all classifications is Saturday at the Portneuf Wellness Complex in Pocatello. The first race begins at 10 a.m.
Mugenzi, a sophomore, is a refugee from Rwanda. Mugenzi used to run around the Borah track while the cross country team was practicing. Since he didn’t speak any English, they didn’t know how to ask him if he wanted to join the team.
“We would go run and we’d get back, and he’d still be running around the track,” Severa said. “He didn’t know any English at that point, and none of them spoke his language. It was the craziest thing. But we found some interpreter to help us all talk.”
Senior Sean Harren, who took fifth at the district meet, says the tight-knit group from different backgrounds has a common goal of winning the program’s first state championship since 2003. They’ve already made an impact as the first Lions boys team to advance to state since 2007.
“It’s honestly just super fun having people who are as dedicated as I am and who run just as well and work just as hard,” Harren said. “During races, it’s also motivating to be up in this lead pack and then you look over and you’re like, ‘Oh look, there’s Siyad, and there’s my good friend Abdi,’ and we’re all just cruising.”
The chance to be part of a team has been equally important to the refugees, who have found a place they fit in and excel.
“Having a long day at school, I can just look forward to being with the team later on, so there I get to have some fun with my day and not just having to go home and do homework,” Maqtal said. “I have this. I am going to be with the team, and we’ll have fun there.”
Mountain View’s Halladay assured spot at state
Freshman phenom Lexy Halladay does not have to apply for a medical hardship to get into the state cross country meet Saturday in Pocatello. Although Halladay was unable to finish the district race (flu), she is assured a spot because of her team’s qualification.