Bullets shot through the windows of Syveste Divava’s home. His mother was cooking in the kitchen when one passed by her ear.
Divava was born in 1996 in Congo. It was the same year a Rwanda invasion sent the country into a tailspin it is still recovering from.
“There was too much shooting, too much guns,” Divava said. “My mom was like, ‘I can’t handle this anymore.’ She said she would just see the police always chasing all the gangs around.”
He’s since spent the past four years at Kent-Meridian High School – about 9,000 miles from his first home in Congo. He’s played for the soccer team all four years and he can speak French, English, Lingala and Yoruba. The senior might stick out at most other schools.
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Its varsity soccer team has players born in five of the world’s seven continents. More were born in Africa (four, including Divava) than the state of Washington (three).
Kent-Meridian’s diversity extends well past the soccer field. Its almost 2,100 students come from more than 100 countries and speak more than 70 languages.
Divava said he and his family — his parents and older brother Glody (younger brother Jude wasn’t born at the time) — risked their lives even on simple trips to the nearest market. They were able to move to Lagos, Nigeria, and avoided contributing to the about 5.4 million deaths since 1996 from the First and Second Congo Wars, according to the nonprofit World Without Genocide.
But even with an upbringing like that, Divava said there are plenty of students who can relate to him at Kent-Meridian.
“I’m not saying it would be bad, but you just don’t want to be the only black guy in school,” Siveste said. “Here, there are more people who understand you.”
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“Celebrating Our Diversity Every Day.” Those words are painted blue on a wall at the front entrance of Kent-Meridian High School.
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“More and more every year we are embracing more and more cultures and more and more people from all walks of life,” Kent-Meridian principal Wade Barringer said. “Kids might find one person at a different school who speaks their language, but at K-M you’re likely to find multiple people.”
Just in the past 10 years, Kent-Meridian’s student demographic has shifted. Its ratio of white students to students of other ethnicities was almost even in the 2003-04 school year.
Now more than 76 percent of K-M’s 2,092 students are students of color, and about a third of its students either came in learning to speak English or are currently learning. The school has the largest English Language Learners program in the state.
Soccer coach Brian Gabert coached previously at schools in La Paz, Bolivia, and Taipei, Taiwan, but neither had teams with such diverse backgrounds as those he’s had at Kent-Meridian.
Gabert, a Federal Way graduate, went on to play soccer at Gonzaga University before joining the Peace Corps. After getting his master’s degree at Columbia University in New York and teaching overseas, he returned to Kent in 2004.
“The first few years I was shocked,” Gabert said. “When I went to school it was 95 percent white. Now it’s,” he chuckles, “ it’s amazing. I’m like, ‘Where did this place come from?’ ”
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Mukhamad Gafurov is ethnically Turkish, but tense political complications in Georgia and in Uzbekistan resulted in his family landing in Krasnodar, Russia, where Gafurov was born. His family had a farm and grew tomatoes, cucumbers and other crops.
His grandparents lived in Georgia, but were packed into trains and went to Uzbekistan during a war with Russia. That’s where his father was born, but being Turkish, they weren’t made to feel welcome in the country and the family moved countries again — this time to Russia.
It didn’t end there.
Gafurov said he was watching TV one day when Russian president Vladimir Putin came on.
“He basically said, ‘We don’t want Turks living in Russia,’ ” Gafurov said. “I was like 6 at the time and I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ I thought it was a joke.
“We had police come into our house. They tried to intimidate us and pressure us to move away.”
Gafurov and his family moved to Vermont when he was 8 and then Kent four years later. He had seen pictures of the U.S. — at least, what he thought was it — and said he was happy to leave Russia for America.
“There would be these pictures in the books of cool stuff in the United States,” Gafurov said. “But I think it was actually about England because they would have those two-story buses in them. I thought they were so cool, and I thought there were going to be two-story buses everywhere.
“But when I came here I never saw one.”
His father was an assistant coach on his soccer teams in Russia. Gafurov, who plays midfielder for Kent-Meridian, said the fields he played on there rarely had grass, unlike the many complexes here, including French Field at Kent-Meridian, that have turf fields.
“When you fall down, you would have scratch marks on you and you would start to bleed,” he said. “Here, you see people who play on turf and nice grass that was mowed before we play. People think when they get hit, it hurts. But they haven’t seen anything that hurts.”
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Gabert has used interpreters on past teams, and he’s coached many at Kent-Meridian who are playing organized soccer for the first time. But the most difficult aspect of his job is building team chemistry.
If it wasn’t challenging enough to build a contender with players of varying backgrounds, languages and skill sets, the school loses 42 percent of its students each year – a product of the myriad low-income housing options, including apartments and multi-family units, near the school. Gabert essentially works with a new roster every season when graduating seniors are factored in.
Gabert said this is the first time he’s had multiple players with four years of experience in the program.
“I get a lot of what I call ‘one-year wonders,’ ” Gabert said. “It’s definitely not your typical middle-class kid, moves here, he stays here for four years, he grows up here, he graduates from here.”
He used to include his players’ birth countries on the team roster. But Gabert stopped after about five years because he doesn’t want his players’ roots to define who they are.
“You’re an individual,” Gabert said. “The other stuff is cool and I like hearing about it, but that’s not who you are. That’s just a part of you.
“What’s more important is that they learn how to deal with each other as individuals. Not saying, ‘Black people are this, Hispanic people are that, Chinese people are this.’ And knowing that every kid is different not because they are Hispanic or Vietnamese — it’s because they are that person.”
Kent-Meridian forward Jafar Abdullahi, who said he moved from Kenya to Kent when he was 3, was speaking to teammate Kakai Bojang on his cellphone in Gabert’s classroom a few hours before a match against Mount Rainier.
“Kakai, where are you from?” Abdullahi asks.
He burst into laughter and repeated Bojang’s answer to the rest of the room.
“He says, ‘I’m from home,’ ” Abdullahi said.