Lewiston, Maine is an old mill town 35 miles north of Portland. Twenty years ago, Lewiston's population was 96 percent white, but within a few years, more than 7,000 refugees, many from the East African country of Somalia, settled in the New England community. Tension and conflict followed. Bilal Hersi '24 helped bring the community together.
Bilal's father, Abdullahi Abdi, had a bright future as a Somali track star before he was hit by a car while riding a motorcycle. With a broken heel, Abdi transitioned to coaching (and politics) and in 1996, he was appointed to lead a small delegation of Somali athletes to the Summer Olympics. The host city that year was Atlanta. A couple years later, when Abdi recognized it was time to lead his own family out of his civil war-torn homeland, he chose the only American city he knew, Atlanta.
Abdi, his wife, and their six children settled in Georgia and added three more kids to the family, including Bilal. Their particular neighborhood wasn't particularly safe, so in 2008, the family made the decision to move. Bilal's mother knew exactly where they should go. She had recently visited her best friend from Somalia who was now living in a small town in Maine. The family joined thousands of Somalis who had made Lewiston home.
Bilal felt the tension of a brewing culture clash. He was an American, born in Georgia, but raised by a Somali family, and now part of a growing Somali community infiltrating an old, white New England town. He felt like he belonged on both sides of the divide, and he helped to find common ground – one championship at a time.
"I had all types of friends, and I talked with everyone no matter who they were or where they were from. That started to change things. Even the white kids on the team, they started to see the Somalis differently. They started to understand them, and then we started to win."
Growing up, Bilal wrote down goals that he wants to achieve in life. He wants to be a professional soccer player, and he wants to represent his country on its national soccer team. But first, he wanted to win a state championship. At Lewiston High School, with Bilal playing a leading role, they won two. The Lewistown Blue Devils, with a multicultural starting 11, became the number one team in Maine, and their success, in many ways, brought the community together. In fact, their story has been told in a book, One Goal, and featured on Today. Bilal was interviewed for the segment (above).
Bilal has also crossed another goal from his aspirational list. Born to Somalis, he's eligible to play for the Somali national soccer team, the Ocean Stars. Just last month, he was the youngest player called to the senior camp, and in a match against Eswatini, he made his national team debut.
"During study hall at school, I would watch the Somalia national team play. I idolized those players. And now, I'm one of them. I'm not just representing myself, I'm representing Somali around the world. That first game, it's something I'll cherish forever."
Back from his national team duty, he's rejoined the Siena team. Bilal led Siena with five goals in the fall, and he has two years left before he'll chase the next goal on his list, professional soccer.
"Coming out of high school, Siena was the best choice for me. The coaches have high standards, and that brings out the best in us. Not just on the soccer field, but high demands lead to progress in other areas of life."
Bilal Hersi '24
When Bilal puts on the Somali jersey, he's representing his country on a global stage. And that moves even his father to tears.
"Growing up, my dad was hard on us. He went through hardships so we would have these opportunities. I never got a lot of compliments growing up. But now, to hear how proud he is of me, he doesn't try to show his emotional side, but it came out when I made my national team debut. That made me emotional!"