In 1982, Girma Aweke arrived in the United States in search of a better life and education. After spending his early years in Ethiopia, he made his way to San Jose State University, where he studied engineering.
Seble Demissie, the second youngest of eight children, arrived in the USA in 1987 after earning her undergraduate degree in Ethiopia with the same goals. She did some short term training at the University of Pittsburgh and then earned her MBA at Long Beach State.
It was in Northern California, among the tight-knit Ethiopian community, that the two met, fell in love, married in 1995, and settled in San Jose. Living out their version of the American dream, he as an engineer in the medical field and she working in finance and banking.
Both became American citizens, and they had two children, son Nathaniel and daughter Naomi, who was born in 2000. Sixteen years later, the daughter of immigrants, a first generation American, is on the cusp of representing – and perhaps captaining -- the United States in a youth Women’s World Cup.
It was the Ethiopian community that first drew Naomi Girma to soccer. (In Ethiopia, the children take the first name of their father as their last name). Girma Aweke was one of the organizers of “maleda soccer” (maleda meaning “dawn” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia), a gathering of Ethiopian families that served to strengthen the bonds of the community.
“I was five years old when I first started playing,” said Naomi, who heads into the 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan as one of the USA’s starting center backs. “Girls and boys played together and they always divided soccer games into little kids, medium kids and big kids. I always begged to play with the big kids. Eventually, my parents let me.”
Through these free play weekend afternoons, which also featured other sports and a big BBQ to end the day, Naomi’s love for the game was nurtured. At age nine, she started playing club soccer for the Central Valley Crossfire and grew into one of the USA’s elite female players for her age. She has committed to Stanford University for the fall of 2018 and has captained the U.S. U-17 WNT on several occasions.
Naomi realizes that her upbringing was quintessentially American, but she has a tremendous appreciation for her culture and her parents’ story.
“Obviously I grew up in the United States, but I’ve never lost sight of my heritage,” said Naomi, who still can speak Amharic, her first language. “I’m incredibly proud and honored to play for my country, but I’m also proud that may parents were able to come here and carve out a better life for our family. In a way, it even makes this whole experience even more special.”
Naomi got to experience her heritage first-hand the summer before she entered sixth grade when she and her family spent a month in Ethiopia, traveling to the capital Addis Ababa, where her mom grew up, as well as Nazareth, where her dad was raised and where her grandmother still lives. She admits to sensory overload and some culture shock, but the people, the amazing food and the fact that she came face-to-face with her ancestry made it the trip of her young lifetime.
“We met a lot of family, extended family and people who we would call family even if they aren’t related,” said Naomi. “It was my first time out of the country and it was a wonderful experience, but it was definitely eye-opening. There’s was so much poverty, especially in Addis Ababa, and so over-crowded. I saw where my parents grew up and how different it is to our lives and our neighborhood in San Jose. It really made me appreciate how hard my parents worked to give us the lives we have today.”
Ethiopia is known for its distance runners, most notably Olympic champions Haile Gebrselassie (Naomi’s middle name is Haile), Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar, but Naomi gravitated more towards the sprints, running track during freshman year and competing in the 100 and 400 meters while running the anchor in the 4x100 and 4x400 meters. That’s not to say she doesn’t have stamina as well, as she consistently finishes among the top few players on the U.S. U-17 WNT in endurance tests.
“I always enjoyed running,” said Girma. “When I was little, I loved to play tag. It was fun to catch all the kids and I just kept going all day.”
She is still very tied to the local Ethiopian community, celebrating Ethiopian holidays with several families who live close by during get-togethers that feature lots of traditional foods. Her favorites are kitfo, minced raw beef marinated in a spice mix, and awaze tibs, a spicy lamb dish. And the maleda soccer is still going strong.
The young maleda soccer players have a special place in Naomi’s heart. Parents of the kids she played with when she was little still come up to her to congratulate her on her soccer successes. Ethiopia has never participated in a FIFA Women’s World Cup at any level, but Naomi will become the first player of Ethiopian descent to represent the USA in such a tournament.
“I think all the players on this team are role models, and even though we are only teenagers I think we can understand and appreciate that,” she said. “And if other first generation Ethiopian kids or other immigrants can see me and aspire to play for the United States, then that’s really cool.”
Girma Aweke was just a bit older than Naomi is now when he came to the United States. It’s amazing what can happen in one generation.