WATERVILLE — Regardless of your native tongue, there are some words many people understand. “Pizza,” as Hamza Baher would attest, is one of them.

New to America, Baher, who came from Syria just six months ago, is still learning the English language. When Waterville boys soccer coaches were discussing team dinners and post-game meals after Thursday evening’s practice, though, Baher’s ears perked up when pizza was mentioned.

“It’s good,” said Baher, a junior. “I like it.”

Baher and his two fellow Syrian arrivals, brothers Abdulrahman and Abdullah Sief Eddin, are attuning to the English language and life in America fast. In the meantime, Waterville practices have an Arabic sound to them thanks to the three boys and their interpreter and teammate, Hamad Alsaleh.

Immigrants to the United States, the trio had limited exposure to soccer back home. Baher had never really played the sport before coming to Maine, and the Sief Eddin brothers had primarily played the game on the street with organized youth leagues few and far between.

At Waterville Senior High School, though, the perfect opportunity arose for them to get involved. There, they meet Alsaleh, a fellow Syrian immigrant who has been living in the United States for several years and was months removed from his sophomore season with the soccer team.


“It’s really cool how it all worked out,” said Waterville head coach Colby Clarke. “They’re good kids, and you can tell with the two brothers, they’ve played soccer before, just not organized soccer. They’re good with the ball at their feet, so it’s just a matter of teaching the positions and 11-on-11 system.”

Waterville boys soccer head coach Colby Clarke gives instructions for a drill as Hamed Alsaleh, background, listens and interprets for non-English speaking players during practice Thursday in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

That’s where Alsaleh comes in. After Clarke instructs his team on positioning, tactics or how to run a drill, Alsaleh repeats the same instructions in Arabic so that Baher, Abdullah and “Abdu,” as Clarke calls Abdulrahman, can understand them. 

“It’s pretty cool,” said Alsaleh, who moved to the United States in 2016. “It’s great to be able to share the language and communicate with each other. We’re all having a lot of fun together.”

The newcomers are picking up on the game quickly. Through Clarke’s instructions and Alsaleh’s translations, they’re learning to make outside runs and check their shoulders after receiving passes. At times, even before Alsaleh translates, Clark knows the three can understand — “I can see it in their eyes,” he said.

In return for him teaching them organized soccer, the three players have displayed immense gratitude toward their head coach. When Clarke drops off Abdullah, a senior, and Abdulrahman, a sophomore, at home after practice, it’s never a quick goodbye; he’s always welcomed inside.

Upon entering the Sief Eddin household, Clarke is immediately greeted with a fresh coffee, crackers, candy and a meal. The Middle Eastern-style cooking is new to Clarke, but the family’s delicious entrees are quickly becoming some of his favorites.


“My favorite dish so far that they make is this chicken masala and rice with beans and a pita bread; it’s the best,” Clarke said. “It’s great to go over there and have the family be so welcoming and to be able to have all the great food they serve me.”

Although it’s never easy to adapt to life 5,000 miles from home, the trio is enjoying soccer and school in the United States. The latter, Baher said in Arabic with Alsaleh interpreting, is something he isn’t taking for granted.

“There are a lot more opportunities to study and learn here,” Baher said. “We’re learning English, but we’re also learning a lot more. It’s cool.”

Waterville Senior High School’s Hamed Alsaleh helps Hamza Baher, right center, during practice Thursday in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

It’s an adjustment on the field for Clarke, who has another player shouting instructions in another language right after he gives out his own. Yet that’s nothing, he says, compared to the adjustment Baher, Abdullah and Abdulrahman are going through in a totally new environment.

Clarke sees the trio making those adjustments every day. He’s amazed, he said, in the players’ ability to learn the game and adapt to playing on a team, and their positive attitudes have rubbed off on both he and his fellow coaches and the rest of the team.

“English is a very hard language, and these guys are learning that and learning soccer and balancing school and a new place all at once,” Clarke said. “They impress me every day, and my goal is to make it the best possible transition for them.”

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