CHICAGO — Almost all of the 14 varsity soccer players at Sullivan High School are immigrants from countries around the world, including Mexico, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Iraq, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana and Myanmar.
Many don't speak English, but they all speak soccer, which has led to success on the field heading into Thursday's IHSA regional opener against Chicagoland Jewish School at Warren Park.
"It doesn't matter what language we speak," said senior defender Rafael Salazar, 18, who immigrated to the United States with a family friend from Mexico when he was 3 years old.
"As long as we know how to play well with each other, that's fine."
Justin Breen says the kids work well together as a team:
Junior midfield Sewar AlBawi can relate to his teammates because of how he arrived in America. Three years ago, he left war-torn Iraq with his parents, five brothers and two sisters for what he called "a better life."
"We are from different countries, but we all have similar problems," said AlBawi, 16. "We all know it's a struggle."
Senior defender Gabriel Masalu came with his brother to Rogers Park from Tanzania in 2013. The siblings had been living with their grandmother in Tanzania for the previous 10 years while their parents resided in Chicago.
Thang Khup, 17, escaped a civil war in Myanmar on a crowded truck with "40 other dehydrated people." He and his family lived in Malaysia for four years and recently arrived in the United States with help from the UN Refugee Agency.
Senior Cesar Cristobal, 17, crossed the Mexican border into the United States when he was 2 years old, enduring a three-day drive across a desert with a family friend. His parents migrated to the United States separately, and they now live together.
"We left Mexico because of poverty and for reaching the American dream," Cristobal said. "Slowly with time, we have been able to start a better life as dreamers."
Like his teammates, Cristobal said soccer is his life and passion. They share that feeling with their coach, Migert Baburi, a 32-year-old Sullivan graduate who left a civil war in Albania with his father in 1997.
"We were one of the last flights out," said Baburi, Sullivan's coach since 2010. "Year in and year out, I have the same type of kids. Most of them, like me, are refugees."
Baburi, of Jefferson Park, was Sullivan's dean of attendance and assistant dean of discipline, but was laid off two weeks before this school year began. He decided to remain as coach because "he didn't want to leave my kids hanging," he said.
"I personally have never believed in quitting," Baburi said. "I have had most of these boys since they were freshmen and sophomores. You start something and you finish it right."
Many of his players are heads of their household, so Baburi doesn't schedule extra games beyond the conference schedule to keep from interfering with their work commitments. Sullivan finished this season 5-1-1 and won the Division 2 North conference title.
His players said a lack of game competition won't hurt them in the playoffs, especially considering Sullivan advanced to the regional final last year.
"We see each other every day, and that builds chemistry on the field," Salazar said. "Soccer to us is just a way of life. It's always been there for us. Everybody on our team pretty much lives and breathes soccer."
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