I asked him where he was from--he responded that he was from New York. With his accent, I couldn't imagine that was all there was to him. So I asked where he was originally from. "Sierra Leone," he replied. I can assure you, I'm certainly no geography guru, but by spare chance, I happened to remember reading about the civil war and the diamond conflict, and in the back of my mind, I recalled looking over some pictures from the Kono District. Mohamed was nearly in shock when I mentioned Kono, and it just so happened that his family did in fact hail from a village in Kono.
During practice, we ran through our workout as usual. As we neared the conclusion of our sprints, I saw Mohamed on the other side of the track, writhing in pain--cramps or something of the sort. Feeling rather guilty for my being slightly amused by this, I went over to see if he was okay. I reminded him to stretch and apply ice, and suggested he avoid eating too close to practice. After an eventful first day of practice, I didn't really expect to see Mohamed stick around for long, but he sure as hell proved me wrong. He stuck by the sport giving it everything he had, seldom missing a workout, and always seen with a grin from ear-to-ear regardless of the weather or the workout.
At our first meet, Mohamed was entered in the 800-meter run. He had no idea how to strategically run the race, and after the first 300 meters was well ahead of the pack, rapidly fatiguing and seemingly (or perhaps genuinely) unaware of the remaining 500 meters. He finished the race, and with a very respectable time for his first-ever race. We congratulated him on completing the difficult race, and through gasps for breath, he managed to squeak out a question. "That...was...fun. Do we have a...meet...tomorrow?" Track & field is a lot of things, but I've rarely heard the 800 described as a "fun race," and I'd be willing to bet that there are few runners who would willingly run two consecutive 800's.
The following week was taken as rest in preparation for the Conference Championships, and Mohamed didn't qualify individually in his first meet, so he would have to sit spectator at the championship meet. But at the last minute, the need for someone to run a 400 in the Distance Medley Relay (DMR), came up, and Mohamed was suddenly in luck. He ran his leg of the race to the best of his abilities, turning in a solid time, and prepared again to run immediately after.
As the outdoor season commenced, Mohamed's 400-meter time dropped, and he was soon down in the low 50s range. He would run an open 400, then less than an hour later run a leg of the 4x400 relay. I think we all thought he was a little crazy at that point. Perhaps more impressive was that there were times where his second 400 would be slightly faster than his first. I guess he was just warming up.
The more I got to know Mohamed, the more I liked him. He was a character, and more than anything, he was eager to learn, and as I soon found out, came from far more adverse and abject conditions than the impression he gave when we first met.
It's people like Mohamed that make you realize how fortunate you really are. To see the joyous countenance of a person who hasn't seen his parents in nearly a decade, a person who has less but is far more satisfied and effusively grateful for what opportunities he has been afforded; that makes you realize your own great fortune, and simply brightens your day.
We on the track team are often apprehensively anticipating a hard run, and though we all love the sport, I've never heard of anyone who finished a half-mile sprint, and immediately ask when he would be able to run it again. People like Mohamed add a fresh and holistic perspective to life, and to do that it takes a certain talent, and a certain person;needless to say, they aren't ubiquitous in today's day and age.
A few weekends ago, Mohamed came to visit me at my parents' home for the Sabbath. Though a practicer and observer of the Islamic faith, Mohamed was not only open-minded, but utterly reverent and truly interested in the Jewish customs, foods, and laws. Seldom do you ever hear of a Muslim partaking in the Jewish Sabbath, and even more rarely does it seem that that person can be completely comfortable in an environment entirely foreign and unknown.
There is a reason that Mohamed is one of my best friends through thin and thick. He makes me remember how fortunate I am to have what I have, to live and enjoy life, to remind myself how great I really have it. I am certain that anyone who has been around Mohamed for even just a brief moment will be able to see how much of an impact he has on those around him, how his inexorable happiness and unfaltering smile have inspired hope in so many. At the end of the day, there are so few of us who have had a life as difficult and trying as Mohamed. Seeing the smiling face of a young man who has been away from his family for over seven years, seeing the face of a friend who has suffered through the greatest adversity, but is so determined to achieve his goals--that is what defines Mohamed, what makes him such a unique person, great friend, and inspiration to those around him.