Fouad Abdullah hunches over a table in the gym at the Sea Road School in Kennebunk, tosses a small orange ball in the air and whacks it with a paddle. It shoots across the net, straight past his opponent.

Score another point for Maine’s new table tennis champ.

Last month, Abdullah, 20, won the Maine State Table Tennis Championship at a tournament in New Gloucester.

That victory doesn’t surprise Seth Oakes, who supervises the Monday night table tennis games for the Kennebunk Recreation Department.

“When I saw him play for the first time,” Oakes says, “I think we jokingly said, ‘Well, there’s the next state champ right there.'”

Abdullah, who is from Iraq and has been in Maine only since August, doesn’t speak much English. But he’s fluent in the language of table tennis. He was a member of the Iraqi national team.

“I know I am good at it,” Abdullah says through an interpreter, “and I work to be better and better.”

When Abdullah arrived in Maine with his family – his mother and father, 12-year-old sister, Doaa, and 7-year-old brother, Murad – he wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to play the sport he’s been passionate about since he was 9 years old. And that would be a big loss.

“This game,” Abdullah says, “it’s all my life. It’s everything for me.”

Nancy Berrang was determined to help.

A volunteer with the Catholic Charities American Friends Program, Berrang is helping Abdullah and his family make the transition to life in Maine.

“So the first thing that I was charged with was to find table tennis opportunities for Fouad,” says Berrang, who works at King Middle School in Portland. “And I know nothing about table tennis. In fact, I call it pingpong.”

She did some homework and discovered that it’s played every week in programs in Kennebunk, Bridgton and Lewiston.

“So I thought we’ll just get in the car and go and see what’s what,” says Berrang. “I had no idea what kind of a player he was.”

It didn’t take long for her to find out.

“We got up to Lewiston that first night and he took his jacket off and he took his paddle out and I thought, ‘Oh, this is the real deal.'”

Abdullah’s parents say it was clear early on that their son was the real deal. But it was also clear that Iraq wasn’t a place where his talent would be nurtured.

Six years ago, his trainer – a beloved mentor and family friend – was murdered.

“I’m sure you follow the news,” Abdullah’s father, Mohammed Mohammed, says through an interpreter, “and you see what’s happened there, everybody being killed. Nobody knows why.”

What they did know was that it was no longer safe to stay in Iraq – especially since Mohammed had worked on U.S. military bases in Mosul during the war.

Abdullah was able to leave Iraq in 2012 and spent 20 months in a refugee camp in Turkey. His family followed him there a few months later.

It was in Turkey that he was offered what seemed like the chance of a lifetime. The top player in the city of Adana urged him to stay in Turkey to play for its team.

“They told me,” Abdullah says, “‘We can help you to get a house … and to attend the university.'”

But he turned down the offer because it didn’t include asylum for his family. They’re together now, living in an apartment in Westbrook.

“We are so glad to be here,” his father says.

Abdullah has his heart set on competing in some of the larger tournaments sanctioned by USA Table Tennis, the national governing body for the sport in the United States.

The friends he has met here don’t blame him.

“He’s better than anybody here already,” says Tom Runge, a regular in the Monday night games in Kennebunk. “So in order for him to compete and get even better, he has to go out of state, like Boston.”

That’s a challenge, since travel and training are expensive. For now, Abdullah is happy to play in Maine every chance he gets – and the community of players that has welcomed him with open arms is happy to have him.

“It’s amazing to have somebody of that caliber here,” says Oakes of Kennebunk Rec. “It brings other people in. … When they hear he’s gonna be here, they’ll come in and play that night.”

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