If Sarmad Aqrawi passes 10 students walking through the halls of Cascade High School and doesn’t greet or know at least two of them, it’s an anomaly.
Aqrawi is fully integrated into high school life at Cascade. In many ways he portrays your typical high school senior. Aqrawi’s developed friendships, participates in athletics and has started thinking about life after graduation.
Both his football coach, Shane Keck, and soccer coach, Sam Croft, rave about his athletic prowess, but most importantly, they speak glowingly of his character.
“He is a really good kicker and all that stuff, but he is super positive and always has a smile,” Keck said. “He has had a super positive impact on our whole program. His energy is infectious and his character is second to none.”
Aqrawi is in the midst of his final season as the Bruins’ starting kicker, and he’s helped the team to a 4-3 record. He’s also eagerly anticipating soccer come spring.
But four years ago to think Aqrawi would be in his current situation — playing sports and enjoying freedoms afforded to him by living in the United States — for him, it would be hard to fathom.
Growing up in Baghdad, Iraq, Aqrawi and his family were ostracized and regularly faced religious persecution. The Aqrawis, who are Christians, were viewed differently living in an Iraqi population dominated by Islamic faith.
While a complete Iraq census hasn’t been conducted since 1987, ADF International projected in 2015 that only 1 percent of the Iraqi population is Christian.
In middle school, Aqrawi was the only Christian in his class. He remembers being forced to leave the classroom during Islamic studies, and his dad regularly kept close watch over him to ensure his safety.
“We weren’t really welcomed in Iraq,” Aqrawi said. “We didn’t feel like this is our country. My dad never let me go out with my friends from here to McDonalds, because he cares about me. He wanted me to stay alive, because it was really dangerous. If I go, I might get kidnapped or they ask for money. Same thing with my sister. Someone had to drive her to college and take her back. It was really hard.”
Aqrawi’s father owned a small rubber manufacturing company, which provided the family income, but he was forced to shut it down after receiving a grisly threat. His dad was out of work and lost all the machines he owned.
“They received a message at his work that there was a bullet, and a message on it said you have to close your factory or we kill your family or something,” Aqrawi explained.
Fearing for their safety and hoping for a better life in a new country, Aqrawi and his family in 2011 fled to neighboring Turkey, where they registered to immigrate to either the United States or Australia — two countries where extended family lived.
Aqrawi was 13 years old when his family left Iraq, and he didn’t attend school while living in his temporary Turkish home.
With so much time at his disposal, Aqrawi’s attention turned to soccer.
“I used to watch TV with my dad, and he loved watching soccer,” Aqrawi explained. “My dad wanted me to play soccer, but he was also scared for me (in Iraq), so I couldn’t really join any club or team. My family told me when I was really young, even when I was barely moving, I would just move the ball around.”
Aqrawi, in Iraq, only played soccer in the streets with neighborhood kids, but in Turkey he had access to legitimate soccer fields and took full advantage.
“The first year in Turkey it was just soccer, soccer, soccer, 24/7,” Aqrawi said. “The last year in Turkey, I started working, but that didn’t stop me from soccer.”
Aqrawi still recalls the first time he approached kids at the Turkish fields, asking if he could play. He was laughed at after showing how hard he could kick the ball. That didn’t stop Aqrawi. He became more determined. He kept kicking and kicking and kicking until he developed the powerful leg he now possesses.
“I think that is what has helped me for football as a kicker,” Aqrawi said.
New life half a world away
In 2014, Aqrawi’s family was granted permission to immigrate to the U.S. Aqrawi, who spoke no English beyond a simple “Hi, my name is,” was excited for his new life. He was eager to learn the language, culture and resume his schooling following a three-year break.
He settled in Everett with his mom, dad and two sisters. Aqrawi’s cousin, Bassam Halabiya, who had moved from Iraq to Everett years prior, provided important guidance to Aqrawi.
In fact, Halabiya was largely responsible for introducing Aqrawi to football. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl during the 2013-14 season — months before Aqrawi moved to Everett — and the Cascade senior fondly remembers watching his first football game. It was a Super Bowl rematch against the Denver Broncos during Week 3 of the 2014-15 season. Aqrawi was instantly hooked. He was especially intrigued by the kicking game.
“I didn’t understand anything, but I started to watch a lot of football and learned the rules of the game,” Aqrawi said. “My cousin always said he had a big regret not playing football, so I said, ‘OK, I am going to do it.’”
Barriers have never slowed Aqrawi.
He knew no one at Cascade High School when he began his freshman year at 16 years old. He spoke no English and was in the infancy of learning a complex American culture. Athletics became his platform to connect.
“When I first met him, we could tell there was a definite English gap,” said Croft, who began coaching Aqrawi when he joined Cascade’s soccer team in the spring of his freshman year. “He would always agree and say, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ but we knew and he knew he didn’t get it. But he was a nice young man, and he’d always give you 110 percent. The nice thing is on the field, soccer is a universal language.”
Aqrawi began forging friendships through soccer while diligently learning English with the help of his cousin and English Language Learning (ELL) courses at Cascade.
Aqrawi was a standout on the JV team before moving to varsity and leading the club in goals, with eight, his sophomore year. He earned WIAA Athlete of the Week honors after scoring four goals during a two-game stretch.
“It’s really hard to pin him down as certain style of player,” Croft said. “Tenacious is what he is. The guy does stuff you can’t believe. You think there is no way he can get that shot off. Then he scores, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, Sarmad, how did you do that?’”
Injuries kept Aqrawi off the soccer field most of his junior year, but even then he ensured he was part of the team, traveling to away games and attending practices he wasn’t suiting up for.
“It’s what you wish in every player,” Croft said. “Having a player like Sarmad who puts the team before himself, it’s an absolute pleasure and the most fun you can have as a coach.”
Aqrawi, who now speaks nearly flawless English, left ELL and joined his peers in regular English courses as a junior. That’s also the year he started playing football.
Football and freedom
“It was the classic, doesn’t know if the ball is pumped or stuffed, over the crossbar or under the crossbar like soccer,” joked Keck about Aqrawi’s initial football knowledge. “It was really rudimentary in terms of, ‘OK, kickoff, here is what we are trying to do.’”
Aqrawi had to learn technique, but there was no denying his potential.
“My first kickoff, I was able to kick it to get a touchback,” Aqrawi said. “The coaches said, ‘This is your first time kicking? That’s an NFL kick.’ They were kind of messing with me, but said I kick really well.”
That hasn’t changed. Aqrawi was quickly named the Bruins starting kicker last season and rests atop the depth chart again this fall. He owns a 75 percent touchback rate, Keck said, which places him among the premier kickers in Wesco.
Aqrawi’s field goal opportunities have been limited — the Bruins often go for it on fourth down — but he’s made a 55-yard field goal during practice, routinely converts 50-yarders and feels automatic in the 40s.
“It’s actually a huge weapon,” Keck said. “On kickoffs he’s really talented, probably a small-school kicker — Division III or Division II if he wanted to do that. He has a really strong leg.”
Cascade was fortunate to have its Iraqi-born kicker this season. Because Aqrawi turned 20 years old before September 1, to gain eligibility he had to share his story during a hearing in front of a panel of athletic directors and a WIAA member. He was tasked with proving hardship was responsible for his age and high school standing.
Aqrawi soon after learned his case was approved.
Aqrawi’s favorite football memory came a month ago during Cascade’s Week 2 win over Everett. He was lined up to kick an extra point when the snap sailed high and bounced at his feet. Aqrawi picked the ball up, tossed it to his teammate for a two-point conversion and was mobbed by teammates.
“Everyone said, ‘This is our quarterback. You’re a legend,’” Aqrawi joked.
Off the field, football, like soccer, has woven Aqrawi into the fabric of Cascade. He’s gained a high level of comfort at the school and interacts with students and teachers as if he’s been in the Everett community his entire life.
“The players, the way the program works, I felt like I fit in quickly,” said Aqrawi, who’s also tried swimming and cross country. “When I score field goals in practice, the players are celebrating like we won the game. I always tell the ELL students, they should do sports, because it’s really helpful. Everyone knows me, because I’m a football player.”
Through everything Aqrawi has endured, Keck has been struck by the positive attitude and pure joy his senior displays on a daily basis.
“He could be really jaded and have a hard heart and bring negativity,” Keck said, “but it’s completely the opposite. He’s been tough and all that stuff, but he always has a smile, has a great sense of humor and doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
And while Aqrawi no doubt has successfully assimilated into life in the U.S. in large part because of his experiences through athletics, the Cascade community has mutually benefited by his presence, Keck said.
“With the current state of society and culture right now with the racial tension and immigration being a hot topic, this is exactly why America is great,” said the Cascade coach. “He gets the opportunity to come to this country, get an education and play high school sport. It’s just cool, because you are seeing the American dream, and our kids get to see such a positive thing going on within our school and program.”
Aqrawi stated what it means to be in the United States playing two different high school sports — one learned during his past life and one learned in the present.
“Now I have my freedom,” he said.