Starting Sunday, more than 30,000 people with Ethiopian ties will be in Renton for a weeklong soccer tournament that also offers a cherished celebration of Ethiopian culture through music, food and dance.
Surafel Wodajo’s most cherished memory from his childhood in Ethiopia is sitting on the cement floor in his living room watching Zinedine Zidane, a French soccer star who was in an Italian league at the time, on his family’s black-and-white TV.
Armon Tenaw, who now plays on a team with Wodajo in Seattle, can’t pinpoint when he was introduced to the sport. It’s just always been there. He remembers playing on the streets, at school, everywhere.
Because in Ethiopia, soccer isn’t just a sport, it’s the sport.
Starting Sunday, Wodajo, Tenaw and more than 30,000 Ethiopians will be in a place where soccer is king and they are surrounded by their culture. For seven days, Renton Memorial Stadium will become an Ethiopian haven of music, food and dance thanks to the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America’s 34th annual soccer tournament.
“Soccer is the vehicle of bringing everybody together,” said Wodajo, a 27-year-old who plays for the Seattle Baro. “But really what it’s about is coming and celebrating being Ethiopian and enjoying our culture.”
Thirty-one men’s soccer teams from around North America, including the Seattle Baro and the Seattle Dashen, will play in the tournament that runs in conjunction with a cultural festival.
The weeklong event, which is returning to the Seattle area for the first time since 2004, serves as a reunion of sorts for Ethiopians across the continent. (According to a 2014 study, about 6,100 Seattle residents were born in Ethiopia.) Samson Ghanna, who spent four years on the Dashen team after he arrived in the United States nearly three decades ago, said at these tournaments he has run into old friends whom he previously believed to be dead.
Ghanna has been to about 10 ESFNA tournaments, and he always leaves feeling refreshed. For one week, it’s like being back in Ethiopia.
Sense of the familiar
With the ESFNA tournament fast approaching, the Dashen team has been practicing in North Seattle three times a week to get ready. On the field at practice, both Amharic and English are spoken. The Dashen team counts how many passes go from player to player across the circle without being touched by their teammates in the middle. They’ll count aloud in Amharic, then switch to English and back to Amharic again, usually for superstitious reasons when the warm-up game isn’t going well.
Teshome Negeri, one of the founding members of the Seattle Baro, pitched the team’s name as a way to honor his home country. The Baro River is the only navigable river in Ethiopia. The Dashen’s team name comes from the highest mountain in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen.
For these two Seattle teams, soccer has become a way to preserve their culture. The older players feel responsible to help pass down Ethiopian traditions to their teammates, some of whom only know life in the U.S.
“One of the things we’re trying to do on this team is also — the kids that are born here — to have that Ethiopian culture,” said Tadiwos Melashu, one of three captains for the Dashen.
Soccer served as a point of familiarity for some players who were new arrivals to the U.S. Landing in a new country can be “extremely terrifying,” Wodajo said. During his first month in the Seattle area, as a first-grader, he and his older sister were lost in SeaTac for two hours after they got off the school bus at the wrong stop. They didn’t know enough English to tell someone they needed help.
In October 2003, Melashu arrived in Seattle with his family on a Friday, staying with relatives. The next morning, Melashu’s cousin left to go play in a soccer game. Melashu went to watch. Since then — before he’d had his first breakfast in America — Melashu has been part of the Seattle Dashen team.
“This was my comfort zone until I got used to the whole American culture here,” Melashu said. “This feels (like) home.”
Moving to America
Many of these Ethiopian players came on diversity visas or they immigrated to the U.S. after family members became citizens. They came in search of opportunity.
“Let’s be real,” said Wodajo, who moved to the U.S. when he was 6. “Coming into probably the greatest empire this world has ever seen, why wouldn’t you (want to)? To me it’s a no-brainer.”
Wodajo’s mom didn’t initially want to apply for the diversity visa. It’s a process also known as the green-card lottery, which randomly selects immigrants to receive permanent residency in the U.S. She didn’t want to leave her family and everything she’d ever known, but eventually, the boss at her job convinced her to apply.
After their last trip to the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa, where Wodajo’s family received the final thumbs-up in the extensive process of moving to the U.S., they went to a cafe and Wodajo ate his favorite meal — fish and kitfo, a type of raw beef. He remembers his parents tipping well that night.
Then, they sold all their belongings in 10 days, “like a going-out-of-business sale,” Wodajo said, laughing. They needed the money for plane tickets and visa application fees.
Wodajo eventually went to Pacific Lutheran University, where he also played soccer, and now he’s working in sales at a software company in Bellevue.
“We definitely have come a long way since we first got here with nothing to where we are now,” Wodajo said. “Just the opportunity we were given, we didn’t really take it for granted.”
For others, the journey was under more adverse situations. By the time Daniel Kore came to the U.S. in 1999, his father had been imprisoned multiple times because he was an air marshal under the previous regime, which had been overthrown in 1991. Simply being tied to his dad’s name could have landed Kore in jail, too.
Kore came to the Seattle area when he was 13 with his siblings on visitor visas, which usually last six months, because he said they were essentially “scared for our lives.” The visa expired, and after that, nobody apart from Kore’s family knew they didn’t have green cards.
Kore, who’s now 31 and vice president of the Seattle Dashen, ran cross-country and track at Cascade High School in Everett and started to receive scholarship offers, which he couldn’t accept without proving his residency status. As a senior, Kore was voted outstanding student-athlete of the year. He said that helped his case for receiving a green card after he graduated. Kore ran at a community college before getting injured and eventually graduating from UW.
Since being released from prison, Kore’s father has visited his son in Seattle three times — a surprise visit when Kore graduated high school in 2003, a short trip for Kore’s UW graduation and when Kore got married last year.
For the ESFNA tournament, Kore’s dad is back in Seattle.
Before Kore left Ethiopia, he visited his dad in jail and told him he was leaving the country. He remembers his dad crying. Kore’s dad told him how being in jail stripped him of everything — his money, his family, his life. But then he said, “knowledge is power” and that can’t be taken away.
“That never left me,” Kore said. “It got pretty emotional.”
Unlike many of his teammates, Kore did not play soccer as a kid. Kore only recently joined the Dashen team because the coach, one of Kore’s close friends, asked him to help build the team’s organizational structure.
As part of the team, Kore, now a technology consultant at Microsoft, recognizes that he’s in a position where he can mentor the younger players and help them through college applications, resumes and networking. Kore wants to emphasize the same principle that his dad once stressed to him.
“For us, to come all the way here and not do something good for your life, it has a little bit of pressure,” Melashu said. “There’s a high expectation from your parents. We’re not here for nothing. We’re here for a reason.”
Value of soccer
Back in Ethiopia, kids would usually play soccer on the streets with socks stuffed with old clothing acting as makeshift balls. They’d set the boundaries of the goals using rocks or shoes. Some would play barefooted.
That’s why soccer is a global game, Ghanna said. Fancy equipment and turf fields are optional. All that’s needed is a ball or anything that resembles one.
“Everybody plays in Africa,” Ghanna said. “The whole world plays soccer.”
For all the Dashen and Baro athletes, playing on the team lets them feel like they’re part of something. Their teammates understand and embrace the same culture and traditions.
And on the soccer field, their childhood game from Ethiopia intersects with their new lives in America, finally a piece of common ground.
“When you come here,” Kore said, “you feel alive.”