New Haven football provides respite for Yemen player

Foreign-exchange student Yunes Alhobane, center without helmet, is surrounded by his New Haven teammates for a photo at practice Tuesday. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel)

Civil war keeps foreign-exchange student from returning home

Thursday, October 22, 2015 12:01 AM

New Haven High School football coach Jim Rowland usually saves his most fiery pregame speech for senior night. Last Friday, he turned the job over to a player who rarely plays.
Yunes Alhobane, a 17-year-old foreign exchange student from Yemen, pulled out his prepared speech and passionately told his teammates how much they meant to him.
“I don’t call them teammates any more,” Alhobane said. “We call each other brothers.”
Alhobane’s words energized the room.
“It was probably the best pregame speech we had all year,” senior Alec Gusching said, “Just because Yunes puts so much heart into the team and he wants us to do so well.”
Far from home
Alhobane’s route to New Haven has veered far from a typical foreign exchange student story. He came to the United States in August 2014 on a 10-month visa, settling in with a host family and school in North Carolina, expecting to return home in June. But civil war broke out in Yemen, rendering all plans irrelevant.
Communication between Alhobane and his family was cut off. Alhobane had almost no idea what was going on with his family and his hometown of Aden. To say it was a scary time would be an understatement.
More than 5,400 people have been killed since Shiite Houthis rebels toppled the Yemen government early this year and the Saudi-backed forces have attempted to regain control. Rumors of peace talks continue, but the situation remains volatile.
“When the war started, I couldn’t contact anyone from March until July,” Alhobane said.
By July, Alhobane had been placed with a group of 25 Yemen foreign-exchange students assigned by the U.S. State Department to a camp in Lynchburg, Va., waiting to see what would happen next. Their visas were extended another year. But they had no idea what was happening with their families.
“One night when I called, somebody finally answered and I was able to talk to them for a couple minutes,” Alhobane said. “I just went to the cabin and started crying because I couldn’t stand to see my friends still not have contact with their families. I cried it out.”
As he learned more about what was going on in Yemen, the news proved difficult to handle. His father Ahmed and brother Mohammed were taken hostage by rebels. They were later released, but his father has suffered severe injuries to both eyes and his brother has injuries to one eye. Relatives and close friends of Alhobane have been killed in the war.
“My school, my hospital, they destroyed everything,” Alhobane said. “My neighborhood got destroyed, my personal home.”
His father and brother were transported to Jordan with their injuries. His father remains there, but his brother has returned to Yemen. Alhobane has not spoken with his mother, Matra, since July, but he has learned she is safe with other family members in countryside shelters. He talks to his father more frequently since he has been in Jordan.
“I was excited about going back home to my family,” Alhobane said. “Family is family, no matter what happens. After May came, they said, ‘You ain’t going home.’ ”
After spending the summer in Virginia, Alhobane was assigned to continue as a foreign exchange student in Indiana.
New home, new family
Marc and Rise Padgett were empty nesters who had never hosted a foreign student, but a Christian organization they were involved with asked them if they would be interested in hosting Alhobane. The Padgetts were told Alhobane’s heartbreaking story and immediately said yes.
“We picked him up and he asked if he could call us mom and dad,” Marc Padgett said.
“That melted my heart right there,” Rise Padgett said.
Alhobane’s personality was evident from the start, the Padgetts said. He’s polite, respectful, outgoing and willing to serve in any way. Alhobane is close with his mother, Rise said, and turns to Rise for the hugs and mothering touch that he misses from home.
“He’s compassionate,” she said. “He has a caring heart.”
Upon enrolling in New Haven, Alhobane became involved in Campus Life and joined the football team. He had never played football before.
Rise Padgett remembers Alhobane coming home from his first practice, excited about the players helping him learn to put on his helmet and pads, giving him fist bumps and treating him as part of the team right away.
“The kids love him,” Rowland said. “They really rally around him. A lot of kids can identify with some of the things he’s gone though. We’ve had other players lose close friends.
“These kids will continue to rally around him. I’ve had several foreign exchange students, but I’ve never had one as vocal and who demonstrated such leadership as him, and the kids take him serious. He’s not playing on Friday nights, but he’s made such a big impact on the kids.”
Brothers in the locker room
Football has become a respite for Alhobane from worrying about his family in Yemen. They’re always near his thoughts, but at afternoon practices and Friday night games, he can don his gear and be a normal high school athlete.
“He’s one person you always want to be around,” Gusching said. “He always has a smile, no matter what.”
Alhobane credits that smile in large part to his teammates. New Haven has had a bit of an up-and-down season, but the Bulldogs are 6-3 heading into postseason play on Friday.
Even though Alhobane only plays at the ends of games that are no longer in doubt, he’s engaged throughout the night, encouraging his teammates, offering high fives, patting them on the back. Marc Padgett says Alhobane’s enthusiasm and support for the team never wanes.
“As soon as I came to New Haven, I stepped in the locker room and I felt this team would change my whole life, and it did,” Alhobane said. “I’m thanking God every day that I came here. This football team changed my life.
“I think about home and everything, but the football team, they keep me company, they’ve got my back every day. I can feel it when I step in here.”
Alhobane will remain at New Haven and graduate in May. His future, like that of his family in Yemen, remains unclear. As long as unrest remains in Yemen, the students are likely to remain in the United States. Some of the older Yemen foreign exchange students attend college in the state of Washington, the Padgetts said. The Padgetts have offered their home to Alhobane if circumstances keep him here and he wants to attend a local college.
“The State Department just pops out with an email, and you never now what the plan is,” Alhobane said. “They’ll let me finish my senior year, but who knows what the State Department has planned after that?”
Alhobane is grateful he is able to have constant contact with his father, at least as long as his father remains in Jordan. He has assurances his family is safe for now, although their lives are in upheaval from losing their home.
He’ll continue to turn to his football team for a boost, as long as they remain playing in the postseason.
“I told coach Rowland the other day, I wish the football season wouldn’t end,” Alhobane said. “It’ll be harder when the season’s over.”
Rowland said he expects the players to continue to lift Alhobane up during the coming months after the season ends. The lift Alhobane has given the team – showing what real perseverance and dealing with adversity looks like – has made an impact on everyone.
“Had we not won a game this year,” Rowland said, “I’d have counted myself lucky just meeting this young man.”
“New Haven is blessed to have Yunes come here and be part of us,” Gusching said. “He’s a brother now.”

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