From fear to freedom: The soccer journey of Saadiq Mohammed

Saadiq Mohammed left Somalia and Kenya, and eventually landed with the Saint Louis University Billikens. Neeta Satam for ESPN

THE TEXTS COME in spurts from a jail cell in Nairobi, Kenya.

6:42 a.m. Im been arrested en in real bad situation.

6:45 a.m. Since last nite i avnt eaten en some of them they beat mi.

7:04 a.m. Its oky wll handle ooh ma god.

10:20 a.m. If u av seen th way they treat us its lyk hell they beat yuh.

10:22 a.m. I prefer 2 let mi go to Somalia than these hell life.

It's April 2014, and Saadiq Mohammed will be held captive for more than two days.

FOUR YEARS LATER, almost to the day, Saadiq looks up, catching a glimpse of a Somali flag billowing overhead on Saint Louis University's campus. His flag.

Here is what he longs for, perhaps what he will always long for: Lido Beach, where he swears the sand is as white as the star on that flag. The fruit trees outside his house in Mogadishu, where he'd shake loose mangoes and guava for breakfast. The square patch of dirt where he'd toe lines in the sand to create a box; the adjacent concrete wall where he'd use charcoal to outline the shape of a goal. He'd stand outside the box of his makeshift pitch and send a ball hurtling toward that wall on an endless loop, waking the neighbors whose only respite from the scalding Somali heat was to nap indoors. Over their protests, he'd kick the ball again and again, honing his shooting accuracy, refining his crossing technique. Before he joined the Somali national team, before he starred in the Kenyan Premier League, before he started his life and career over as a college player here in the United States, that patch of dirt was where Saadiq learned to play soccer -- the game that threatened his life, then saved it.

He steals one more glance at the Somali flag. He was born in Kenya, but his mother's family is from Somalia, where he spent much of his childhood, so he feels tied to both, wraps his identity in each. His flags, like the dozens of others perched atop Des Peres Hall and the Center for Global Citizenship on SLU's north campus, fly in honor of the home countries of the school's international student body. In honor of students like him: a Somali living in St. Louis; a migrant seeking asylum in the United States. He didn't know it when he first arrived, but Saadiq left the turmoil of war behind only to wage a new battle here -- for the right to claim asylum, the right to stay.

He looks away and keeps walking, past the bare littleleaf linden trees still recovering from the St. Louis winter. He laughs, remembering the feel of sand burning the soles of his feet, the feel of home. He loves Somalia. Kenya too. But he can't go back. On this early spring afternoon in 2018, he's a lanky midfielder with a mop of dark hair for the Saint Louis University Billikens, a 22-year-old college athlete preparing for his junior season. Four years earlier, he was arrested in Kenya and imprisoned for 48 hours. He sat in a hot, cramped, overcrowded cell with 30 other detained Somalis -- men and women and children and women pregnant with children -- and cried. Not from the shock of the injustice but from the banality of it. Injustice was woven into the fabric of his life. Saadiq had been arrested in Kenya before, so often he lost count -- maybe eight times, maybe 10. His crime, each time, was his existence, the act of being Somali. He had been shot at and received death threats in Somalia because he was a soccer player. His crime was always his existence. In Kenya, he was too Somali. In Somalia, he was not the right kind of Somali. He had two countries and he had none, so he sat in his prison cell, sobbing, and asked himself:

What kind of life is this?

SAADIQ WALKS ALONG the edge of one of Saint Louis University's sprawling lawns and recounts the latest departure he's had to endure. A few feet away, a student lazes in a hammock; a stone statue of a dolphin breaches midair in a fountain. The trappings of Saadiq's new reality, this collegial panorama, brush against the upheaval of the one he left behind.

"My grandma passed away," he says.

He is quiet, and the wind swallows his words. She died just two days ago, some 8,500 miles away from St. Louis in Mogadishu. He hadn't seen her since 2013.

Saadiq's life is riddled with exits. His father died when Saadiq was a toddler. His older sister was killed in Somalia. His best friend, Mohammud, drowned in 2014. Hoping to get to Europe, Mohammud had used smugglers to coordinate his journey. At one point, Mohammud walked for 36 hours and, according to Saadiq, made his way to Turkey, where he boarded a boat with other migrants bound for Greece. It sank, and Saadiq lost his friend to the Aegean Sea.

Mohammud was Saadiq's neighbor in Somalia. Kenya too. As children, Mohammud was better at soccer than Saadiq, so Saadiq used to mimic his playing style. Mohammud loved Arsenal, so now Saadiq loves Arsenal. "He was the closest person I had," Saadiq says.

Death has stolen Saadiq's friends, his family, and so has distance -- his personal diaspora. Back in Somalia and Kenya, he'd log on to Facebook to find a flood of friends leaving the country. This one for Turkey, that one for Italy, the next one for Belgium. One brother lives in London, another in Malta. One sister lives in Kenya, another in Somalia. He hasn't been in the same country, let alone the same room, as his mother in half a decade. In 2013, when he was living in Kenya, he returned to Somalia in secret to see her. By that time, Saadiq was a rising soccer prospect. He had played for Banadir, one of the highest-profile teams in Somalia; for the U17 Somali team and then for the senior national team; for the AFC Leopards, a professional squad in the Kenyan Premier League. He was a star, which meant he was also a target.

His mother wanted to know why he had come when he knew how much it terrified her to have him in Mogadishu. He told her he loved her and missed her and didn't care about the risk, so they found nondescript meeting spots -- downtown, on the south side, in a restaurant -- to see each other. He was a fugitive in his own home.

That's why, after the people he loved had left him, in the end he had to leave too.

THE SOUNDS OF war, of lives being taken by guns and bombs, are a familiar soundtrack in Mogadishu.

"Somali music," a Somali told a counterterrorism expert. This was the music of Saadiq's childhood too. His star rose in soccer against the backdrop of al-Shabab -- not the only force behind Mogadishu's rampant violence but its deadliest. An Islamic extremist group with ties to al-Qaida, al-Shabab choked Mogadishu in a death grip for much of Saadiq's adolescence -- first by taking territorial control over much of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu, and imposing its brand of severe Islamic practice, and later when it ceded physical control of that territory by exerting its influence through a grisly campaign of terror. It's hard to count all the ways al-Shabab soldiers wreaked havoc on Somali life, and still do. In one bloody afternoon in 2013, when Saadiq was 17, they claimed almost 70 lives in an attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall; four years later, they were blamed for killing at least 500 more in a pair of truck bombings in the heart of Mogadishu. In 2018 alone, al-Shabab was responsible for 3,955 fatalities, spearheading a crusade of violence so devastating it was the most lethal militant group in Africa, according to the Africa Center, a research institution within the U.S. Department of Defense. It identifies assassination targets whom it considers un-Islamic -- government officials, Muslim clerics who embrace music or girls' education. And it incarcerates scores of Somalis for the simple act of living, proclaiming a litany of minor offenses to be anti-Islam, unclean, sinful: Smoking. Listening to music. Wearing a bra. Not wearing a hijab. Watching soccer. Playing soccer.

Saadiq's sin.

In fall 2012, Saadiq and his Somali U17 teammates upset Sudan early in the African youth championship. For a team that was ragtag and underresourced, it felt like winning the World Cup. It felt like possibility. Practically delirious from excitement, Saadiq went on the radio for a postgame interview. "Just imagine," he said in his reverie. "If we won a game with this little slice of peace, what would it be if we had more peace?

"We have this group ..." he continued.

This group. A slip of the tongue -- just the whiff of publicly challenging al-Shabab -- left his teammates breathless. They asked if Saadiq was crazy or too brave for his own good. Threats came that very night, calls and messages with dire warnings: "You're a dead man."

Just two months earlier, his goalkeeper, Dani, had been killed. Dani and Saadiq had stayed after practice one day to work on shots on goal. After, Saadiq went home to take a nap and awoke to an avalanche of missed calls. Dani was dead, attacked after their post-practice workout. News reports cited "unidentified assailants," but Saadiq felt certain he knew who was responsible.

Saadiq's transgression was graver than Dani's, more brazen. Not only did he play soccer, he had used the platform soccer gave him to openly challenge al-Shabab.

He'd never be safe in Somalia, not as long as al-Shabab reigned, and though he'd spend much of the next two years in Kenya, he wasn't safe there either. Kenyan authorities harassed Somali migrants with impunity, especially where Saadiq lived in Eastleigh -- "Little Mogadishu," so called because of its swells of Somali refugees. Human Rights Watch, an organization that investigates abuses around the world, reported that police called Somalis "all al-Shabab and terrorists." They told a female migrant, This is Kenya. We can rape you if we want to. And they arrested Saadiq frequently, held him without filing charges, waiting to see if his imprisonment would elicit bribe money from frightened family. They made his life a crime.

His life is his crime, he realizes. Saadiq sits in his cell teeming with Somalis like him who were caught in Kenya's crackdown on its migrant population. There, he texts J.R. Biersmith a flurry of distress signals. Small room. No space. Breathing is hard.

Biersmith, a filmmaker who had followed the Somali national team the year before to document the lives of Saadiq and his teammates as they played soccer in defiance of al-Shabab, writes back with pleas of his own.

"Listen to me. Stay strong, do what they say and we will get you out."

Biersmith calls anyone he can think of -- friends in the media, friends in Washington, D.C. -- to help free Saadiq. The Kenyan police wind up releasing him on their own, after his team manager came to speak on his behalf, but he knows even when he's not in shackles, he can't be free here.

He couldn't be free when he returned to his Kenyan team, the AFC Leopards, and his teammates asked him why he was constantly under arrest. Are you a terrorist? He couldn't be free when, a few weeks later, the Leopards cut his contract, which he felt certain was because he was Somali. So Saadiq sought freedom and the chance to play soccer somewhere new.

He considered soccer teams in Uganda and several in Europe. He was open to going almost anywhere. But four months after he left that prison cell, in the summer of 2014, Saadiq arrived in the United States. A friend of Saadiq's who had been granted asylum and was living in the U.S. helped him navigate the process to obtain a visa. He helped compile video footage, Saadiq's first soccer highlight reel, for potential suitors. Saadiq ended up with a visa for 12 months, a grace period in which to pursue soccer in the U.S. He flew from Nairobi to Miami, stood on the beach in Key Biscayne and thought to himself how much the sand reminded him of Lido Beach, of home. He had one year to prove himself.

With help from Biersmith, he hopscotched across the country, flying from Florida to Texas and, finally, to Missouri in search of an opportunity. In St. Louis, he found what he was after: a soccer team. Saint Louis University offered him a spot on its roster. He found too what he hadn't even known to search for. First, a place to belong. Biersmith's sister, Jessica Herschend, welcomed Saadiq into her home.

Second, if he was given the chance, a place to stay -- for good, he hoped. On July 27, 2015, Saadiq filed for asylum.

Were you harassed there?

Saadiq considered the question posed in his Form I-589 application for asylum, the one he'd send to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to plead his case. To be granted asylum in the U.S., applicants must prove they've been persecuted on one of five grounds -- based on membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, race or nationality. Saadiq argues he has faced persecution for all but one, religion. His social group? High-profile soccer players. His political opinion? Al-Shabab deems his soccer career and Western style -- his haircut, his outspokenness -- political acts against it. His race and nationality? He's a Somali in Kenya.

"It's Kenya," he offered as an answer. "And we're Somali, of course."

It's Kenya and he's Somali, so even though Saadiq is only 13, he knows that Kenyan police lurk behind corners. If they nab him, they can arrest him. If they arrest him, they can demand payment, bribes, for his release.

But his mom is running a fever and needs ibuprofen, so even though it's 10 at night, even though it's not safe at this hour, Saadiq tells her he'll go out to get her medicine -- the store is just down the street, after all. Still, the police catch him. They handcuff him with another Somali and they march all over Eastleigh, picking up more Somalis along the way. The police kick one Somali in the face. They knock out another's front teeth. They beat Saadiq with a stick. Still, they march, for miles and for hours. At 1 in the morning, they let Saadiq go. He doesn't have money to pay for his freedom. Neither does his mother, so they decide he's of no use.

He treks back home that night, and the next morning he begs his mother to move.

She tells him they can't. She tells him, "You have to learn to live with fear."

"I fear that if I return to Kenya or Somalia that I will be harmed, detained, beaten, whipped and/or killed," Saadiq asserted in his Form I-589 affidavit. He signed his name on the next page.

ON THE FIRST Fourth of July holiday Saadiq spent in the United States, in 2015 -- the same month he filed for asylum -- Jessica Herschend took him to a neighbor's house just off of Forest Park, St. Louis' bucolic, 1,300-acre patch of sweeping greenery. From there, they could take in Fair St. Louis and the buffet of Americana the country's "biggest birthday party" had to offer -- hot dogs and Budweiser and a salute to the troops and fireworks. At 19, he had been in the United States for almost a year. He spent a few days in Miami when he first landed, to attend a tryout Biersmith helped set up with Nova Southeastern University's soccer team. Then he stayed for a few months in Texas, where he earned a spot on FC Dallas' academy team. And, finally, he settled in St. Louis. He had already visited the city once, to spend the previous Thanksgiving with Biersmith in his hometown and to meet Biersmith's family -- his sister, Jessica, her husband, Jacob, and their baby daughter, Veda. He came back the following April and had lived with them ever since.

Jessica was excited to share this piece of St. Louis with him, to revel in this slice of patriotic fervor with Saadiq. Here! Here is this country that will open its doors to you. But as the party gathered outside, she saw Saadiq flinch at the burst of the fireworks.

When you've grown up with war, the pop-pop-pop of fireworks can sound a lot like the pop-pop-pop of a gun. Somali music.

It can take you back to 2012, when you returned to Somalia for the first time in six years -- even though you knew the danger -- because the coach from Banadir came calling and you couldn't turn down the opportunity to play for the premier team in Mogadishu. It can take you back to your very first night in the city, when you ventured to the porch of the team house to find your friend Adelle. It can take you back to the moment you stepped outside and heard the click of a gun.

The night is inky black, so Saadiq can't quite see them, but he hears their guns and feels their presence, the weight of the danger of intruders on the porch. Four men -- boys, really -- cluster together a few feet away, armed with AK-47s. They order Saadiq and Adelle to follow them, and that's when Saadiq starts to beg. "I'm the youngest in the family," he says. "I need to call my mom." The four gunmen tell him to keep walking or they'll shoot. His throat closes and he struggles to breathe, but when he and Adelle begin to walk, one of the four recognizes Adelle. That's when the pack of four splinters. Two boys offer mercy and tell Saadiq and Adelle to go back inside. The other two say, "Leave and we'll shoot you." Saadiq cries, then hears the gunmen taunt him for crying. His coach comes tearing out of the house, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel, to beg for Saadiq and Adelle's release. They're set free and the coach tries to settle Saadiq's frayed nerves. "You've seen worse than this," he tells him. "You'll be OK."

Saadiq had seen worse than a fireworks show, but he was not OK. He was quiet about it, like usual. He'll confess he thought those four boys were going to kill him, then promise "It's fine," whispering his assurance like an apology. But Jessica didn't miss the way his body tensed with each crack of fire.

"He calls me his sister and I call him my brother," Jessica says. "When your brother is going through something, you notice."

By that July, Saadiq had lived with Jessica and her family for three months. Back in Somalia and Kenya, he taught himself to read and write in English by poring over soccer stories online. He took hours to read to the end, toggling between his article and his dictionary, underlining a word, unearthing its meaning. Here, he learned new words with Jessica's daughter, cracking open her baby books with her. Belly button. Toes. Fingers. He joked that with their still-new grip on the English language, they were practically the same age.

It happened quietly and without fanfare. Saadiq looked up one day and had people here, had a place.

There was never a discussion, no moment of declaration that he would remain in St. Louis and this house would become his home. He just stayed and it did. After a spell with the MLS developmental league in Texas, Saadiq wanted to try collegiate soccer again, so he went to St. Louis at Jessica's invitation, and for six weeks, from 8 in the morning until 8 at night, they ran a makeshift ACT boot camp. He had planned to return to take the test in Dallas, but Jessica and Jacob worried: Who would drive him to the testing center? Who would make sure he'd get enough sleep and eat enough breakfast if not them? So they asked him to stay for a bit longer, and he did. When the test scores came back and he earned a 23 -- nearly a point and a half above Missouri's average -- it just made good sense to give a local charter school and then the local community college a go until they could determine how Saadiq's academic and legal status would impact his NCAA eligibility. And later, once SLU, the school just 2 miles down the street, found a spot for him on the roster for fall 2016, he stayed a while longer. The NCAA didn't confirm his eligibility until just days before the start of that semester, which left the school without scholarship money for Saadiq's on-campus housing. In the end, Saadiq did what any other new college student would do. He lived at home.

Days became weeks, weeks became months. Jessica, Jacob and Veda cheered for Saadiq during his freshman year at SLU, taking in his campaign from the stands -- three game-winning goals, one assist, Atlantic 10 All-Rookie honors. They shuttled him to and from campus. They refilled his meal card points after discovering he had run out but hadn't told them, for fear of being a burden. Saadiq ate dinner with Jessica and Jacob on the nights he came home at a reasonable hour, when homework and practice allowed for it. At the table, he'd tell them about his pet pigeon back in Mogadishu, the one he fed and gave water to and named Diamond.

"It was one of my favorite things of childhood," he told them.

He watched the news with them, gathered around the TV, and when images flashed of a bombing in Mogadishu, he'd share his truth quietly. He knew some of the victims.

And when SLU screened Biersmith's documentary, "Men in the Arena" -- the film that first brought Saadiq to Biersmith, and then to the United States, and then to Jessica and Jacob -- they came to relive it together. For an hour and a half, audience members -- Saadiq's teammates and his coach, a smattering of interested SLU students -- gathered in a small auditorium to watch Saadiq's story. They watched him recount, on film, all the people he and his Somali teammates lost to war. They watched him wonder aloud why his teammates in Kenya joked that he was a terrorist, simply because he'd been arrested for being Somali. After, in his blue SLU polo, he fielded questions and told the audience of the hope that sustained him back then, that his future would hold promise his past hadn't. He told them of the people who helped make that true, then scanned the crowd, spotting them in the last row of the auditorium. Saadiq looked up and had people here, had a place.

"Jessica and Jacob," he said. "That's my family."

THERE ARE DAYS when Jessica will pull out of her driveway -- a sloping, paved lane that feels like it stretches for miles -- and she'll spot the mail carrier heading toward her home. She'll pull her car over, each time, and wait for that day's offerings.

"I convince myself every day that today's the day the mail will come and the letter will finally be here and we can all breathe again," she says.

They're waiting for word on Saadiq's asylum case. It's spring 2018, and they've been waiting for nearly a year.

"And it doesn't come every day," she says. She goes quiet for a moment, then her voice thickens. "The letter's not in there."

Javad Khazaeli, the lawyer overseeing Saadiq's asylum case, wishes she wouldn't do that -- cling to what he fears, at this point, is false hope for a resolution any time soon. He's been an immigration lawyer for 15 years and spent a decade as a senior terrorism prosecutor in the Department of Homeland Security. He knows this process. He understands that in a different time -- no more than a few years ago -- they might have expected a decision in Saadiq's case a month after his interview with an asylum officer. Perhaps two months. Maybe he would have been granted asylum, maybe not. But they'd have an answer.

Saadiq went to downtown St. Louis in June 2017, sat with Khazaeli inside a spartan office while Jessica and Jacob and Veda waited outside, and served up his life story to an asylum officer. He explained why he feared for his body, his safety, his life if he returned to Kenya or Somalia. Ten months have passed, and he remains in legal and emotional purgatory. No notice. No update. No verdict. It doesn't come every day.

Immigration lawyers and advocates and historians lament that this is the new normal. They talk about all the ways the political climate and current administration have limited immigration and eroded what it means to seek asylum in the United States. Asylum has been branded a loophole, rather than a legal way to come to this country. A presidential memo proposed charging for the right to apply for asylum. Lawyers arrive at a courthouse one day to hear Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers mention a new protocol, says Amanda Doroshow, an immigration attorney. They return the next day to learn ICE has reversed course. The changes are dizzying.

"The whole practice is changed and upside down," Doroshow says.

Or, as Khazaeli says: "It's a war zone. A total war zone."

This is where Saadiq finds himself: in a new country, in a new kind of battle. He waits with more than 318,000 other asylum applicants who, as of March 31, 2018, according to the government, are backlogged -- humans made into numbers, mired in the cobwebs of the U.S.'s fractured immigration system. He waits even though Khazaeli, in all the years he's done this, has never seen a claim for asylum with this kind of evidence.

There were the contemporaneous text messages Saadiq sent from his jail cell in Kenya. There was the statement from the Somali Football Federation urging Saadiq's release from that cell. There was then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter decrying the killing of Saadiq's teammate and goalkeeper, and the rash of violence that al-Shabab unleashed on all of Mogadishu but especially on its soccer players. There was Biersmith's documentary. Asylum seekers are rarely able to proffer the kind of evidence -- news reports and photographs and film, actual film -- laid out in Saadiq's case. It's why, even though Khazaeli can get no answers, he feels he has an answer.

"This is just an act of theater," he says.

Khazaeli feels certain there is a document on a desk somewhere, one that proclaims Saadiq's fear of persecution to be credible. He also feels certain that when Donald Trump entered office, riding a wave of bold campaign pledges to introduce extreme vetting into the U.S.'s immigration system and to ban Muslims from entering America until "our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on," Saadiq, and his case, became political jetsam.

Somalia was included in the president's first iteration of the travel ban, and the second, and the third. Though Khazaeli can't say for sure, he assumes that Saadiq, being Somali, being Muslim, has landed in the crosshairs of the current administration's crackdown on immigrants, especially the kind of immigrant that looks and prays like Saadiq. It's ironic, he says. Saadiq is desperate to flee the same forces of extremism, the same evil, that the government maintains it's desperate to keep out.

So where does that leave him? What does that make him? Unless and until he is granted asylum and told he can stay, what is his place here?

"He has no box to check," Jessica says.

Sitting on a bench on campus, Saadiq closes his eyes for a moment, shutting out the sun and the crush of other students. "It's so hard," he says.

He's not an undocumented immigrant. He has work authorization documents. He's not a citizen. He doesn't have those documents.

Is he a legal resident? He's taking the proper legal recourse, but no. An asylee? Not yet that either.

"He is in limbo," Khazaeli says.

Saadiq watches the news of migrant caravans traveling toward the border and wishes people would understand that those migrants probably don't want to flee, they must. He hasn't walked their path, but he has traveled their journey.

"Nobody wants to be an immigrant," he says. "There must be some reason."

Saadiq has called three countries home for most of his life. Somalia, Kenya and the United States. They belonged to him, but he has never belonged to them. "I never felt like I'm a citizen of any country," he says. "In America, that was my dream. To come to feel that freedom. To be your own person. To feel like a citizen, a human being."

Does he feel that way while he waits?

"Not really," he says. "I still don't feel right."

He doesn't have a home country, but he has a home. Behind the Herschends' house, at the top of the driveway, sits a two-story carriage house. With its redbrick exterior and green roofing, it's a mini-replica of the main house, and the Herschends furnished the top floor into an apartment for Saadiq. He has his own kitchen and bathroom, and a bedroom that he shares with his old teammate from Somalia, Sa'ad.

Inside, there's a pair of black Crocs thrown by the doorway of his room and a black-and-gray checked shirt hanging on the doorknob of his closet. The movie poster for Biersmith's documentary that starred Saadiq and Sa'ad, "Men in the Arena," is framed but not hung, propped up against the wall. The sheer amount of clutter and disarray feels like a statement of something, proof, even. Saadiq lives here.

On his white dresser, among still more odds and ends -- an A-10 All-Rookie team trophy from 2016, a stack of textbooks with yellow "used" stickers on their spines, a Degree Men deodorant -- sits a red, white and blue booklet: Saadiq's personal copy of the U.S. Constitution.

TUCKED IN THE corner on the north end of SLU's campus is a squat, tan brick building. It's not much to look at -- austere and almost solemn -- but Saadiq comes here when he needs comfort. The university's Islamic Center is quiet most days; often he'll have the place to himself. Sometimes he goes to study for class, sometimes to read the Quran. He had to memorize each sura, each chapter, as a child in Somalia, and he doesn't want to forget. You can leave a place behind but still want to hold it close.

"Every time I'm feeling stressed or down or overwhelmed or insecure, it takes a lot of pressure from me," he says as he makes his way toward the center. "It's faith, you know?"

Saadiq passes by the clock tower, the epicenter of Saint Louis University, its spire stretching skyward. He waves to a friend from the Muslim Students' Association, her taupe hijab rippling with the breeze.

"I don't want to leave," he says.

He doesn't just mean the country, though the threat of eventual deportation trails him like a dark, malevolent shadow. He means here. This college. Saint Louis University made Saadiq a person with an identity. He might not have been a legal resident, or even an asylee -- not yet -- but he was a college student. He might not have had a driver's license, but he had his student ID. Proof of his existence, of his rightful belonging.

Then SLU, his safe place, was wrested from him too.

The university fired its soccer coach, Mike McGinty, in the fall of 2017, after Saadiq's sophomore season, and tapped Kevin Kalish, a former All-American for the Billikens, to take over in January 2018. Saadiq's relationship with the team frayed quickly from there. In February: the first indications the school did not intend to follow through on its pledge to make Saadiq's partial scholarship a full one, one that included books, meals and on-campus housing. In April: the first confusion over whether SLU might just not offer Saadiq scholarship money, period. In May: a letter sent by an attorney on Saadiq's behalf, asking the school to honor its promise of a full scholarship and, absent that, a formal request for a hearing. The notice, which gave SLU until the end of the month to respond, was met with silence.

There were other red flags along the way, small issues that added up to one big issue: Saadiq did not feel welcome at SLU anymore. He fielded concerns from Kalish, who said he felt Saadiq seemed overwhelmed; he showed up to follow-up meetings where the coach suggested that Saadiq might benefit from a school with less rigorous academics. He listened to asides from Kalish in practice about Saadiq's hairstyle, Jessica says, comments Saadiq internalized as disapproval.

The Herschends stepped in, hoping to course-correct. They requested meetings with the athletic director and drafted letters to the university president. Like Saadiq, Jessica and Jacob walked away from those meetings and that correspondence under the same impression: The school wanted to see Saadiq transfer. When Jessica tried to explain the hardship that losing a safety net would place on Saadiq -- there are no federal loans or financial aid for those seeking asylum -- she was told that all its players, all students on campus for that matter, must face and overcome obstacles.

Sure, yes, of course! she wanted to scream. But they're not all waiting for the country to tell them it's fine to stay because leaving means risking their lives!

And so Saadiq spends the spring of 2018 enduring a second kind of purgatory: his uncertain fate at SLU.

This semester, planted in the grass every few feet like lodestars are signs that bear headshots of Saadiq's fellow university goers, coupled with an offering from the students of their notions of "global citizenship."

Unity and camaraderie.

Working to see the world around me through others' eyes.

We all have a responsibility for each other.

The signs have been posted in honor of Atlas Week, SLU's annual initiative to highlight the university's international focus and global vision. Saadiq passes dozens of them, another friendly face beaming at him from the lawn, reminding him that he and students like him are worth celebrating. It's a jarring communiqué, when Saadiq isn't sure he's even still welcome on his team, whether he's even welcome to stay in the United States.

He's scared but doesn't want people to know.

"I don't tell people what's on my mind," he says. "It will sound like excuses.

People will just feel bad for me. I have to hide every day."

On his way to mosque, Saadiq passes another sign.

Global citizenship means refusing to rest until everyone can.

"It's hard," he says. "I will just await my moment."

TEN MONTHS LATER, in a classroom in Peoria, Illinois, Saadiq's phone thrums with an incoming FaceTime call from Jessica. Summer had melted into fall, then winter, and by early February 2019, everything has changed. In the end, while SLU did not take away Saadiq's spot on the team, the coach did not offer him a full scholarship either, nor signs that he wanted Saadiq to stay, so he left, transferring to Bradley University to spend the 2018-19 school year in another new city, with another new team.

(Kalish, for his part, says that he wishes Saadiq well and that despite the player's departure he admires Saadiq's abilities as a player and his personal journey. "He chose to go in a different direction, and we respect that and we wish nothing but the best for him," he says.)

Not going home every night to Jessica and Jacob's house is still new, still an adjustment. But soccer, his old friend, remains faithful. That much is still just a ball and a goal and a pitch.

"He has a creativity and a flair to his game," says Jim DeRose, his coach at Bradley. It's the creativity and flair of a player who was never taught the game so much as he lived it and learned it himself, the coach explains, perhaps on a square patch of dirt. He experiments. He plays with new techniques when the ball is on his foot. He improvises. "It's kind of the old 'No no no ... oh, good job, well-done,'" DeRose says with a laugh, relating what it's like to watch Saadiq on the field.

His life marches on in Peoria. He signs up for political science classes and pursues his major. He starts two games in the fall and sets out to get to know his new teammates.

His life remains frozen in Peoria too. His asylum case is still stuck. He is still stuck.

But now Jessica tries to FaceTime him again, and for a split second, Saadiq wonders whether this is his moment. Jessica usually calls on FaceTime only when it's something important, something she's excited to tell him. He glances at the clock. Five minutes until his class, Political Economy of the Developing World, lets out. He wants to go to grad school one day, maybe continue studying political science, even -- if he's allowed to stay in the country.

"Being a citizen of America, that's the biggest goal," he says. "Then I can figure out my life."

His phone chirps again, this time with a text from Jessica. Call me as soon as possible.

At a quarter to noon, he spills out of the room and dials from a corridor in Bradley Hall. Jessica picks up, then with her mother's phone FaceTimes her brother, J.R. They're in Peoria and St. Louis and Los Angeles, together.

"Saadiq, I have news for you," she says. "Your case was approved."

He laughs. He covers his face with his left hand.

"It's official," Jessica tells him.

Saadiq arches his neck back, smiles.

"Oh my god. That's the best ..." He starts, but he cannot finish.

Isn't it exciting?

He can't answer.

Are you OK?

Still nothing comes.

After all those months of silence, of turning her car around to wait for the mail, on Feb. 7, 2019 -- more than a year and a half after Saadiq's asylum interview and three and a half years after he filed for asylum to begin with -- Khazaeli called Jessica to ask whether she had checked that day's delivery.

They finally had their verdict. As 2018 came to a close, Khazaeli told Saadiq and the Herschends that the next best step, the surest hope to gain some kind of resolution for Saadiq, was for Khazaeli to file a writ of mandamus lawsuit -- a request for a federal judge to compel the agency to make a decision. Grant asylum or deny asylum, but come to a decision on Saadiq Mohammed.

Khazaeli never actually formally filed the lawsuit. He showed the U.S. attorney's office the lawsuit draft, and that alone seemed enough to get the gears of Saadiq's case moving again.

Saadiq calls Sa'ad first. Eight years ago, al-Shabab soldiers arrested Sa'ad, held him prisoner for days, whipped him 38 times. Last year al-Shabab soldiers killed Sa'ad's sister in Afgooye, his home village. They were targeting the government officials collecting taxes from his sister at her vegetable and fruit stand in the market, but the bullets aimed at those officials found and killed his sister too.

Perhaps that's why, when Sa'ad picks up the phone, he's sure something is wrong.

Saadiq also can't quite shake the feeling that something is still wrong. For years, like a second heartbeat, the dread that this might all go awry for him pulsed with his every step. "Whenever I walk, wherever I go, I never felt calm. I never felt human," he says.

"I feel human again," he tells Jessica now.

Because he can get a driver's license, proof of his rightful place here. Because he can travel abroad to visit his family after more than half a decade apart. Not to Somalia or Kenya, of course, but maybe to somewhere in Europe, if they can meet him there. Because new opportunities are now there for his taking. In a year, he can file for his green card to be a permanent resident. Five years after that, he can apply to be a U.S. citizen.

"I feel ... freedom," Saadiq says.

It's a freedom born of possibility, of doors swinging open.

"It's over," Jessica tells Saadiq. "But it's also just beginning."