Basketball tucked under one arm, Ajulu Thatha steps out of her Indianapolis apartment and into a hot and humid July day. Her long braids flop over her shoulders as she hops into the front seat of the car. She's quiet. Until the topic turns to her newfound passion: basketball.
Thatha has played the sport for only five years, and she has been in the United States for only six. She was inspired to give basketball a try after attending an Indiana Fever game within months of her plane landing from Ethiopia.
"I told myself, 'Maybe you can do this,' " Thatha said.
Six years later, Thatha is a 17-year-old senior at Decatur Central High School and has committed to play in college at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Hers is an unlikely journey that started in Gambella, Ethiopia, and has taken her along a path that twists like the Baro River, where she used to splash and play back home. Basketball has given her an opportunity that felt out of reach as a 12-year-old learning English in a foreign place. The opportunity to go to college manifested because of Thatha's perseverance, and it was her courage that allowed her to seize it.
Of course, that doesn't mean the journey has been easy. Let's start with the basketball.
"It was so hard," Thatha said. "The first day my body was sore and I was like, 'What am I doing? What is this?' "
Standing at 6-foot-2, Thatha is often described as "raw," which is to say that that while she hasn't been playing for very long, her potential is significant. She primarily plays in the post but has started to step out to the wing. She has superb athletic ability, and unrefined skill.
"She's got more upside than anyone I've been around lately," Decatur Central coach Daryl Gibbs said in a phone interview. "If you were going to ask me what kind of player I'd want on my team in today's world, it'd be her because once her skills get up to her athleticism, she'll be really, really good."
Thatha, who lives with her dad, brother and stepmom, hasn't been back to Ethiopia since she left six years ago. Though she talks to her mom once a month on the phone, she hasn't seen her. She wants to go back, to go home, to see her mom, but her family doesn't think it's safe. Thatha, however, is stubborn. "People go there and come back safe, so I'm going to go," she said.
Thatha is Anuak, which is an ethnic group that, according to Human Rights Watch, has experienced atrocities committed by the Ethiopian military. Human Rights Watch documented beatings, killings and imprisonment among the many crimes committed against the Anuak. Thatha's father, Omod Obur, was reportedly imprisoned following a series of incidents in December 2003 because of his position within the local government, and later released. When he heard that he was to be arrested again, he fled, leaving his family, including Thatha, in the care of his brother. Obur first fled to South Sudan, then Kenya, and then managed to make it to the United States as a refugee in August 2010. Along the way his legal name was reversed, so he is known as Obur Omod to many. The whole trip took Obur about six years.
The day after Obur moved to Indianapolis, he met DeeEllen Davis at her church. Davis was on her way to a Habitat for Humanity build and told Obur to get in the car with her. Davis, a social worker, has helped many immigrant families, and once Obur told her about his family in Gambella, Davis made it her mission to help reunite them.
"When I met him, he had just called his wife the day before to let them know he was safe and in the United States," Davis said. "He didn't dare contact [his family] before, knowing that the government might be pressuring his family."
Getting to the United States to be reunited with her father was a long, arduous process. Thatha moved to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where she stayed for eight months. During that time, Thatha was shuttled between appointments, each with more paperwork than the last. Davis coordinated with a social worker she knew in the city to make sure that someone knew where Thatha, her stepmom, and brother all needed to be. In June 2012, she arrived in Indianapolis, running to hug her father once she got off the plane.
"It was nice," Thatha said of her first impression of the city she would come to call home, before adding, "and scary." At 12 years old, Thatha didn't speak much English. She spoke Anuak and Amharic. Her father helped her learn some basic words to say hello, but when she went to school, Thatha had to learn from scratch.
"It was hard to make friends, because I didn't know what they were talking about," Thatha said. But within a year, her English had improved to the point where she was comfortable speaking.
Thatha deflects much of the credit for her success. She points to the teachers who took an immediate interest in her as reason for her initial improvement. She's grateful for the coaches who patiently pushed her to learn the game. She credits Davis, who helped Thatha navigate the complexities of the American education and sports systems. It was Davis who took Thatha to that Indiana Fever game. She had two daughters who played soccer at a high level, so she knew getting Thatha onto an AAU team would matter for her development. She fought for Thatha to have extra time on her tests because English-language learners are entitled to that.
"Ajulu's really stepped up to the plate," Davis said. "She didn't know how hard this would be."
In Ethiopia, Thatha used to play in the Baro River. Once she saw a crocodile heading right for her. She stood in the water, gazing intently at the crocodile. She'd never seen one so close. Her cousin stood on the bank, yelling for her to run.
"I was like, 'Right, I should run away now,'" Thatha said. She shrugged and laughed as she told the story, because, well, it was pretty funny. The story is also emblematic of who Thatha is. Her deep curiosity and ability to be captivated is what has pushed forward her basketball career.
Thatha plays in a basketball-rich city in a basketball-rich state. She plays with people who dribble and shoot better than she does, who read game situations better than she does. It would have been easy for her to give up before starting because she had so much ground to make up. Instead, she got really good at the stuff that most kids hate. And now an opportunity with the Cougars in the Ohio Valley Conference awaits.
"I love playing defense," Thatha said. "I also love rebounding. You can put me in the game and tell me to rebound, and I will do it."
Thatha will do whatever it takes, whether that means ripping a rebound away from an opponent or dutifully studying to prepare to take the ACT and ensure that she will get into college. She went to prom, but skipped the after-party because she had a tournament the next day. She was skeptical of going to prom in the first place because she had to miss a game. Missing more was not an option.
Her laser focus got Thatha multiple scholarship offers, but the love of the game created a new home. Asked what she does for fun, the answer for Thatha is simple.
"I play basketball."