Aime Selamo is celebrating IPS’ first North Central Conference championship in soccer. But he’s not celebrating that title as much as he cheered last year when he had to tell a student to stop playing on his team.
Not because the student underperformed or misbehaved, but because he was set to become valedictorian of his high school class and Selamo didn’t want him to jeopardize that in any way.
“He was a great soccer player, but I was worried about him bringing down his GPA,” said Selamo. “I called him and told him ‘I love you as a player. I want you to play, but I’m even prouder if you end up valedictorian.’”
Selamo deactivated the student but made it clear he was still part of the team. “I told him, ‘Your main job for the team is to be the valedictorian. We are all rooting for you.’”
In the end, Abiodun Akinseye did indeed become valedictorian. “I couldn’t be prouder,” said Selamo.
And this, in a nutshell, is coach Selamo. A native of the West African nation Cameroon, his homeland is wracked by war and infighting, which means that many kids, including his own nieces and nephews, are unable to go to school for years at a time.
“It kills me when I’m sitting here mentoring kids, and back at home my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews aren’t even going to school because of war,” said Selamo. “So, I tell these kids here to take advantage of it.”
But with a father who played professional soccer, he was given other opportunities other kids did not have. He was a gifted player himself, but his father recognized there was life beyond the pitch.
“I had the opportunity to play in a youth league in Europe, but my dad told me to wait until I finished school,” he said. “He told me that education was important, because if I got injured, nobody will look at me again. Then in my last year of college I was playing in the Netherlands, and I got injured in one of our last matches. Lo and behold, that’s what happened. So, I became a teacher.”
Since arriving in Indianapolis in 1998, Coach Selamo has made it his goal to spread soccer culture to the Circle City, particularly within the bounds of IPS. He became head coach at Northwest High School in 2010, and stayed on until the school closed this past year. He says he was “blessed” to get the head coaching job at Arsenal Technical High School, where the larger student body gives him a greater pool of soccer players to choose from, but also the opportunity to be a mentor is great as well.
When he’s not coaching, Selamo is a behavioral specialist at Arsenal Tech. He spends a great deal of his time helping international students acclimate to American culture, a process he says includes America becoming acclimated to the students as well.
“I urge teachers to try to understand the different cultures. Where I come from, and where most African students come from, when you’re talking to an elder, you don’t look them in the eye. You look down. That’s a sign of respect,” said Selamo. “But here you look people in the eye and the teacher will take it as a sign of disrespect, and say ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you.’ It’s a sign of respect where this child is from. They are supposed to look down when they are talking to you.”
Selamo recently became involved in efforts to expand the soccer offerings in the district, working to establish youth soccer programs to serve as a developmental league and establishing soccer as a household sport in the land where football and basketball are king. The idea, he said, is that when kids start playing soccer early, the sport becomes ingrained in them, and they become better players.
“I remember our first summer camp, we had about 12 kids show up,” he said. “Today you have a camp and have 300 or 400 kids. I look back at those days and now you have kids in elementary schools playing soccer, and by the time they go into high school, they have been playing it for years.”
Senior Genaro Escobedo called coach Selamo a great mentor, and said he feels lucky to have him leading him on and off the field.
“I see him as family,” said Genaro. “He helps me with my grades, and makes sure I focus in class.”
Arsenal Tech’s large international student population has helped Selamo find a place as a mentor as well, using his common background as a point of connection with his students.
“I tell them we are all in this together,” he said. “I don’t come from the United States. I told them that I’m a coach today, but I went through all of the same challenges they did, so I not only sympathize with them, I can empathize with them. I can look at them and see myself.”
Tech Senior Mobolaji Bakar said coach Selamo goes the extra mile for his students, going above the usual call of duty to make sure everyone becomes accustomed to their school.
“When I came from Africa, I didn’t know anyone from the school,” said Mobolaj. “Coach Selamo was the one helping me and my cousin and taking us around the school, and he did that for like three months. At first, I was very shy, but he made me close to all of my teachers. I get motivated every day from him.”
Selamo also chafes at the political landscape as it relates to immigrants, saying it promotes distrust and misunderstanding, and discourages students from participating.
“We are starting to see a lot of hate coming into play again. They think we’re robbers, or murderers, or something like that. Some parents are afraid for their kids to get involved in sports, because they are afraid it will attract attention and they will be deported,” he said. “But we try to help our students understand that at IPS and in our school system, it’s different.”
Politics aside, Selamo said IPS has truly welcomed many international students. And the challenges they’ve faced are, in some, cases truly remarkable.
“Some of us have no idea what these kids have been through. Some of them are coming from war situations,” he said. “Moving from refugee camp to refugee camp, some of them don’t know what they’re going to eat the next day; some of them are separated from their families. Then they come in this environment, and they don’t know what to do.”
But Selamo’s innate connection with international students doesn’t mean he doesn’t cut up a little with his native students as well.
“I’ve been in America since 1998,” he said. “Sometimes I hear my American students say ‘He’s not from here,’ and I joke with them and say, ‘Man, I’ve been here longer. I’m more American than you.’”