She and her family had been trying to get to the United States for a decade since political violence forced them to flee Togo and settle in neighboring Accra, Ghana. She said it took that long to “go through the process” and be approved.
She said her father — who had been a chef in Ghana — promised the five children good times in the U.S.: “He said each of us could get our own rooms and we’d all have laptops and a lot of things. But when we got here everything was much different.”
Instead of New York City, the family ended up in Dayton — with the help of the Catholic Social Services Resettlement Program — and 16-year-old Isabella became a student at Belmont High School, which has a much-praised English as a Second Language (ESL) program.
“When we came we didn’t have much,” she admitted. “The food was different, learning the language was difficult and it was soooo cold. At first some of the American kids in school seemed very rude. They said things about my hair, the way I dressed.”
She soon met fellow student Osama Abusim, who had lived in Benghazi, Libya, before his family had fled to refugee camps in Sudan and Egypt prior to Dayton. He introduced her to his friends, some of whom played soccer for Belmont.
Last year Isabella finally approached her parents about going out for the boys team since Belmont doesn’t offer the sport for girls:
“I asked my mom first. I begged her and she said OK, but told me to ask my dad. He said no and I started crying. I know my mom talked to him after that and they finally agreed, but they worried I was going to get hurt.”
»RELATED: Belmont soccer boasts international flavor
Isabella ended up on the most unique prep sports teams in the Miami Valley. The Bison had players from 18 nations and four continents. Some were Christian, some were Muslim, 21 were boys and two — Isabella and Brianna Brake — were girls.
Isabella Danhoui, who played on the Belmont High School soccer team, has been given a scholarship to the University of Northwest Ohio in Lima. LISA POWELL / STAFF
Many of the players had been forced to flee their homeland because of war or persecution. Several had spent years in crowded refugee camps and some had endured deadly family tragedy along the way.
Playing soccer helped them all form a bond last year, especially under the guidance of then Belmont coach, Julie Raiff, who has since been replaced even though she drew praise from many quarters, including Belmont’s athletics director Earl White.
Raiff, who Isabella said “loved all of us, she was like our mom,” promoted the team that ended up embraced in unprecedented fashion by the community.
»RELATED: Belmont soccer team inspires community
The Centerville High soccer team — which ended up being Belmont’s opponent in the postseason tournament — forged a friendship with the Bison players that began before the teams met and continued after the Elks handed Belmont its only loss of the season.
The Centerville soccer program provided them with some 80 pair of cleats and hosted them at a party and, in turn, the Belmont players were in the stands cheering for the Elks as they continued on in the tournament.
The Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation was so moved by the union between the affluent suburban school and the inner-city team of foreign-born players that it invited several athletes from both programs to be its guest at its $5,000-a-table, black tie awards ceremony at the Schuster Center.
To make sure the Belmont players looked sharp, various people in the community stepped up and took the Bison on a shopping spree at Von Maur at the Greene.
As stories on the Belmont players appeared in the Dayton Daily News, people in the area began sending in unsolicited donations to help the team.
Because Raiff was well known, the daughter of University of Dayton Hall of Famer Jerry Raiff, she had played soccer at UD and over the years had coached at Stivers, Chaminade Julienne, Oakwood, Alter and St. Marys, several people sent checks directly to her.
Others, including Larry Corson and his wife Rebecca, who wrote a check for $1,000 and an accompanying letter to Belmont principal Melanie Walter, sent money to the school.
Raiff sent all the money on to the Dayton Public Schools’ athletic department, except for one late $150 donation she received that was made out to her with the instruction of spending it as she saw fit on a player.
She used that money to pay for Isabella to play for the Reign United soccer club in West Carrollton this summer.
Although she had played sparingly for Belmont in her senior season last year, Isabella got a chance to showcase herself with Reign and was spotted by Kelsey Deal, the former Wright State soccer star from Piqua who now is an assistant coach at the University of Northwest Ohio in Lima.
She offered Isabella a partial scholarship to UNOH.
“She has a good personality and is a good teammate,” Deal said. “She will be a good addition to our team.”
And UNOH appears to be a perfect place for Isabella. The Racers are made up almost solely of foreign-born athletes. The women’s varsity has players from 14 nations, the men from 10.
And the Racers are good. Last season the women were the NAIA national champs. In three years the team has lost seven of 76 games.
“I had always wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know if it would be possible. And I never thought I’d be going and playing soccer, too,” said Isabella, who has been practicing with her former Belmont teammates and leaves for school this week. She will play in her first junior varsity game for UNOH on Sept. 14.
“I’m the first to go to college in my family. I’m excited about it and nervous, too,” she said. “This is something new and big for me. It’s different people and a different place.”
But there is one familiarity.
“I love soccer,” she said. “It’s like solving a problem to me. Either you are going into a problem or you are getting out of a problem. I like that about it.”
Belmont High does so many things right, but it has made some curious decisions involving the soccer program since last season.
Raiff was replaced as coach by Jane Landis, who is an ESL teacher at the school and has coached softball and volleyball at Dunbar, but not soccer.
Belmont athletics director Earl White said the change came because the principal wanted the coach to be someone from the building “to help with day to day managing of the kids.”
Raiff used to teach at Belmont, but for the past two years has been at Northridge. That said, there have been and still are Bison coaches who don’t work at the school.
“I don’t hire coaches, but I sensed there was some bad blood between the principal and the old coach and that’s sad,” Mark Baker, the Dayton Public Schools athletics director, said.
Walter refused to discuss the reason for a coaching change in an interview she cut short in her office recently. She did say she had not been told in advance last year about the stories that were coming out about her team.
But it was White who first directed me to the soccer team because of its international flavor. And Raiff claims she told Walter of the interviews and invited her to come to practice and join in.
White did praise Raiff: “Julie did absolutely nothing wrong. She did a fantastic job for us.”
Isabella had similar thoughts: “She was awesome. I love her and miss her. Because of her help, I’m going to college.”
And donors felt the same way.
“You are impacting these young people beyond what you may think, stretching their minds, bodies, belief in themselves and bringing joy that’s long overdue for each of them,” Maribeth Graham wrote in a letter that accompanied her check.
As for the money that was sent to the school, donor Larry Corson said at least his check was wrongly deposited for several months in the Dayton Public Schools general fund instead of being placed in a soccer account for Belmont.
It took him eight months and a lot of frustration, but he got the issue resolved.
Raiff said some other people approached her at the Literary Peace Prize dinner and told her they were turned away by the school when they showed up to donate.
Landis said she heard some checks that were sent to the school made out to Raiff were destroyed because she did not work there.
After some research, Baker said there is now $3,500 in the athletic fund earmarked for Belmont soccer. There is also $900 in a Go Fund Me account for Belmont soccer that was set up by a friend of Raiff. That money remains untouched.
“Practically no one from the principal’s office at Belmont to the school board office paid much attention to why they got the money or what they were supposed to do with it until there was a great deal of prodding,” Corson said. “I wish I just would have given the money straight to Centerville High and they could have spent it on Belmont.”
Speaking of Centerville, many in the soccer program there are mystified by a seeming sudden lack of interest by Belmont officials in the connections that developed between the soccer programs and players at the two schools, said Genya Devoe, the president of the Centerville Boys Soccer Board.
Centerville had the Belmont players join them for a training camp with Dutch coaches this summer and had several Bison players added to their Galaxy club team.
“We had planned to continue and really develop the relationship this school year,” Devoe said. “We had a game scheduled to play Belmont in September and afterward we planned to have a pizza party like last year and a tailgate. We made several tries but never heard anything back from them.
“We also invited them to play one of their games at our stadium and we’d set up the opponent for them. The plan was to invite our Centerville fans to come and wear Belmont blue and cheer them on.
“And on the 23rd we’re playing in the (Columbus) Crew Stadium at noon and we have tickets for a (Crew) game that night. A parent was renting a charter bus and we wanted to bring the Belmont players too.
“But through it all, we get no response. Just crickets. It’s pretty disheartening. I feel for the kids.”
Centerville will have played seven games by the time Belmont finally opens its season Thursday against Ponitz.
In all, the Elks play 16 regular season games over two months. Belmont has 10 games scheduled in a season that lasts less than a month and concludes with three games on consecutive nights, including one in Columbus and one in Spring Valley.
“Our kids just deserve better,” Landis said. “They need more games, they need to be challenged.”
Love of soccer
Landis has some good ideas. She said she’s trying to showcase her players to area colleges, something Raiff did last year. And she has added some new players.
One of the team’s best, Herman Congwain, whose family came from Cameroon six years ago, is also the placekicker for the football team coached by White.
And most importantly the program still is assisted by Ramadan Ndayisaba, who spent 15 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania after his family fled Burundi. He then came to America, was a multi-sport star at Belmont, went to Sinclair Community College, works two jobs, became a citizen and is in the process of becoming a Dayton police officer.
Isabella Danhoui, raised in Ghana and a former teammate on the Belmont High School soccer team, has been given a scholarship to the University of Northwest Ohio in Lima. Danhoui is still working out with the high school soccer team before she starts college. LISA POWELL / STAFF
He runs practices and, as Landis said, is “a respected role model for all the players.”
And one other thing remains unchanged this year.
As Corson wrote in his letter to Walter about her “remarkable” soccer team:
“We never forget we are a nation of immigrants. And the things that made America great are the ideas of freedom, opportunity and tolerance. America isn’t a place, it’s an idea which is renewed and kept vigorous by its immigrants who constantly remind those of us who came before just what the idea is all about.”
Landis seems to appreciate that.
“This is going to be a good year,” she said as she watched practice. “A very good year.”
No one hopes that more than Isabella, who shared her thoughts after one of her final workouts with her former teammates last week.
“I’m really going to miss these guys. They were never rude to me. They helped me and were nice to me. They are like brothers to me and I love them to death.
“In the beginning they were disappointed Julie wasn’t here. They miss her, but they are getting used to the new coach. She is OK.
“And most of all they can keep playing soccer. They love soccer.
“I hope they get a chance to go on like I have.”