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Basketball As A Way Out Of Syria's War

Hozaifa Almaleh (No. 9, on the right of the front row) was a leading member of Syria's national basketball team from 2004 to 2013. He left the country because of war and now plays professionally in Chicago.
Courtesy of Hozaifa Almaleh
Hozaifa Almaleh (No. 9, on the right of the front row) was a leading member of Syria's national basketball team from 2004 to 2013. He left the country because of war and now plays professionally in Chicago.

Editor's Note: Hozaifa Almaleh made his name as a basketball player in Syria. The sport also provided an avenue out of the country as it suffers through a devastating civil war. As the country marks five years since the start of the uprising, the 6-foot-5 Almaleh reflects on the game — and the war — that has led him to Chicago.

I played professional basketball for the Syrian national team from 2004 to 2013, traveling around the world for a decade representing my country. But with Syria mired in war and millions displaced by the deadly conflict, I decided to leave.

I went to Ecuador to play basketball for a professional team there. Then, in February 2014, I went to Boston to visit a cousin, a journey that has led me to Chicago and a spot on the Windy City Groove, a team in the American Basketball Association.

It pulls at my heart to know that my family and friends are not with me each and every day. But I'm also resolute about building a new life here in America, where I am seeking asylum.

I was born in Damascus, the city where every garden around me was full of the aroma of jasmine. Damascus was a piece of heaven, and it's where my family still lives.

My favorite memories growing up are sitting down with some quiet music and a cup of Turkish coffee, talking to my mom, who has always been my best friend and confidante.

My dad is different. He's tough. He grew up in a traditional merchant family in Damascus. Now that I'm 29, I realize the pressure and responsibility he placed on himself to make sure we had everything we needed. He works hard.

Growing up, I never knew if he was struggling to make ends meet. He never wanted us to worry. Dad always taught me to offer a helping hand.

Almaleh with Samira Ardalan in Chicago.
/ Courtesy of Hozaifa Almaleh
Courtesy of Hozaifa Almaleh
Almaleh with Samira Ardalan in Chicago.

'FaceTime' Holidays

I miss my family most during the holidays, remembering the days I'd sit by the wood fire listening to the Lebanese diva Fairuz, the legendary singer whose songs remind us of our traditions and implore us to rise above our differences.

Now I call my holidays "FaceTime holidays" because this is the only way I can connect with my family these days.

When I was 12, my dad signed me up for a basketball summer camp that changed the trajectory of my life. After that camp, I joined a local basketball club. A year later, one of the starting players was injured and Coach Hassan asked me to start. For the next five years, I averaged 30 points a game.

I was then invited to play for the Syrian National Team in the junior league. My first international game was in Tehran, Iran, where I played against Hamed Haddadi, an Iranian who later played for several years in the NBA.

I remember the head of the West Asian Basketball Association telling me I might end up playing in the NBA one day. That gave me something to believe in and made me even more passionate to be a great player.

In 2004, I joined the top league in Syria, where I helped my team, Al Jeish, win six championships. I was also offered a scholarship to attend the Arab International University in Syria, where I got my degree in business.

Through my years at the university, I played in Dubai, Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, South Korea and China.

When I decided to move to Boston two years ago, my cousin helped me get acclimated to life in America. I moved to Chicago eight months later to play in the CHI-League, a summer league. It was a dream come true, especially when I met .

I used to stay up late at night in Damascus (because of the time difference) to watch Rose and his Chicago Bulls play. When I came to Chicago, I found myself talking to him face to face. That was such an incredible experience.

In 2015, I tried out for Chicago's Windy City Groove and am now finishing up my second season. I still haven't given up my dream of playing in the NBA.

Here in Chicago, I also met a beautiful American woman named Samira, who is from an Iranian-American family. Given the millions of Iranians who left their homeland after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, she understands what I'm going through and inspires me to keep going. I'm looking for the opportunity to give back to this country because America has given me opportunities — to believe in what's possible and to continue seeking my dreams.

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Hozaifa Almaleh