Majeed Hassan remembers the exact day — February 8, 2017 — that he officially, and legally, gained entry into the United States.
That concluded a harrowing, nearly year-long voyage that began in his native Ghana when one of his soccer coaches bought him a plane ticket to Lima, Peru.
Hassan’s journey to Chicago’s northwest suburbs took him through jungle, desert lowlands and parts of the Andes.
Through it all, there was a singular belief that convinced the current Hersey senior to keep going.
“I always knew good things would come in my life,” said Hassan, who enrolled at Hersey last November after briefly living in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. “Getting to the United States was a great opportunity for me.”
Two primary factors shaped his trek to America: education and soccer. Hassan joked that he’s been playing soccer “since I was in my mom’s womb,” and he latched on with one of the Chicago Fire’s youth training squads shortly after arriving in Chicago.
But getting an education was also paramount.
Neither of Hassan’s parents attended school, and he openly explained that few educational opportunities are available in Ghana, primarily due to the cost. Hassan hadn’t been in school for years before he left Ghana. His mother died when he was 10, which changed his home life dramatically.
“In my country, education is the key to success,” said Hassan, who goes by the nickname “Major.” “When you play sports, anything can happen. You need a backup plan. I’d like a soccer career, but education is first and foremost.”
And so, upon arriving in Peru, Hassan knew he had to get to the U.S. — somehow.
He doesn’t remember exactly how many months it took him to trek more than 4,000 miles through South America, then into Central America. And that was only half the battle: The entire length of Mexico still beckoned.
Hassan walked for long segments of his daunting trip and hopped on buses when the geographic area and his depleted wallet allowed. Along the way, he met other bare-bones travelers also in search of a new life in America. He still speaks fondly of the interactions he had with people from Haiti, India and the Middle East.
When he finally arrived at a border crossing between northwestern Mexico and the southern tip of California, Hassan requested asylum. He said he remained in a detention center for “several months” until he was called before a U.S. immigration judge, who ruled in his favor.
“The judge said, ‘Welcome to the United States,’ and I thought to myself that I now get to spend my whole life here,” Hassan said. “It was very joyful. There aren’t any words to describe how happy I was.”
After receiving asylum, Hassan was assigned to Chicago, where he lived with a foster family in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood. Soon, he had a chance meeting with Palatine resident Bill Elsner at a church event in March 2017.
Elsner is retired but works part-time at Fremd, and he soon became an adviser and father figure for Hassan. Elsner helped Hassan connect with the Chicago Fire youth program and also gave him plenty of advice about pursuing an education.
The two have become so close that Hassan sometimes refers to Elsner as “Father Bill”, which follows a Ghanaian tradition of how the head of household is addressed.
“He has such a generous spirit, and he’s very mature. He’s had to be,” Elsner said. “He sometimes looks to me for advice, but when we talk it’s from one adult to another.”
Hassan now lives at Maryville Academy, a Catholic home for displaced children in Des Plaines. Maryville operates the Casa Esperanza and San Francisco Programs, which work in conjunction with the federal government to help refugees get settled in their placement cities.
Hassan has seen more than most teenagers ever will, and his experience also translates to the soccer pitch. Since he didn’t enroll at Hersey until last November, he couldn’t play for the Huskies until this fall. Hersey coach Michael Rusniak said he knew right away how fortunate he was to have Hassan aboard.
He’s been a major reason the Huskies posted an 8-3-3 record during the regular season. Hassan is clearly talented, but Rusniak quickly noticed how selfless he is. At times, the coach has found himself encouraging Hassan, a forward, to be less of a facilitator and be more aggressive instead.
Hassan’s giving nature showed in Hersey’s conference finale against Prospect on Thursday, when he assisted on the game’s lone goal.
“He’s a man among boys in a lot of ways,” Rusniak said. “He’s so unselfish, and refining that will be part of his development as a player. Stats are no indication of how good a player he is.”
Hassan will turn 19 in November, and he’s too old to play for the Chicago Fire junior squads. But between his time in that pipeline and the exposure he’s received on Hersey’s squad, he recently was invited to a college showcase event in Indiana next month.
A good showing there could go a long way toward securing Hassan a spot on a college roster next fall. That would enable soccer and education to remain as the pillars of his American lifestyle.
And those whose paths have crossed with Hassan are certain he’ll succeed in forging a successful path into early adulthood and beyond.
“I have no doubt good things will come his way because of how much of a leader he is and his generous spirit,” Elsner said. “He’s really enriched my life.”