The International Flair of the QC Women’s Tennis team

Riding a scooter on the slick, narrow streets of Tortosa, Spain, eight-year-old Araceli Aleixendri savored the crisp winter air as she propelled herself forward. It wasn’t long until she fell off and broke her leg. In the first month after her injury, she wore a leg cast and traded her wheels for crutches for an additional month. Once the crutches were gone, Aleixendri went back to playing tennis.

Eight years later, she attended a tennis club that was far from her home in Tortosa but offered a more competitive level of tennis since it was in a large city with experienced coaches, more players, and better competition.

“I was taking the train two or three days a week and go in there to practice and then coming back home,” said Aleixendri. “It’s one of my best moments playing tennis.”

She would begin practice at 4:00 PM and make it home at midnight.

One night after practice, a teammate’s mother offered to drive Aleixendri to the train station. Stopped at a red light, Aleixendri and the mother waited for the light to turn green as a car approached them from behind. The driver didn’t stop. He rammed Aleixendri’s car from behind.

Aleixendri got whiplash and chronic back pain from the accident. She wore a neck brace for a week. She began playing tennis soon after. That same year, she won the Masters in a circuit tournament that draws the best in the region.

She is one of the ten international athletes from six European countries and Egypt on the Queens College women’s tennis team. It is currently the second-best team in the East Coast Conference and has competed in the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament for nationally top-ranked teams for 17 years in a row.

They represent a broad spectrum of talent that has shifted American collegiate sports. According to the National Collegiate Association, the large umbrella organization that oversees and regulates college athletics in the United States, there are over 20,000 international students registered with the NCAA. In the 1950s, the NCAA allowed colleges to grant full rides to prospective athletes. By the 1970s, coaches were already recruiting international students.

“If you want to play sports and study, America is the place to go,” said Anica Knezevic, 24, who hails from Serbia. “The United States has athletic scholarships. They have that opportunity that you play sports for school and still do school.”

Unlike the United States, European sports are not conducted through any schools at the elementary or collegiate level. If a child wants to participate in a sport, then the family must pay for membership to a sports club at prices which may be inaccessible for some families. Knezevic’s father was a coach with her local club so she got a deep discount training with her dad.

“The poor families cannot afford schools or sports for kids,” said Knezevic. “They end up being on the streets, smoking weed, smoking cigarettes, drinking—that kind of stuff.”

Clubs can become very exclusive. Reehan Rashad, 23, began playing tennis when she was six years old with the Smouha Sporting Club in Alexandria, Egypt which has a professional soccer team. The annual price of membership for Smouha was approximately $34,000. It has since risen to over $55,000.

In Alexandria, her hometown, Rashad was the number one ranked tennis player by the time she was 20 years old. She had a rival in Smouha whose father was on the board of the club.

“He didn’t have a very nice reputation. He wanted to get me out of the way,” said Rashad. “They hung my name on the club gates that I can’t enter, I can’t practice.”

Rashad had continued playing tennis while she attended engineering school in Alexandria for two years—a rare exception among her QC teammates. The sentiment among them is that there is not enough time to attend university and participate in tennis.

“If I would go to college in Spain, I would have quit tennis. That’s why I came here,” said Ruth Artaza Martin, 21. “You cannot tell your professor I have a match, or I want to practice so I can’t study.”

The University of Alexandria required Rashad to take seven classes a semester for five years. Her grades soon deteriorated, and she boasted a 2.0 GPA when she transferred to Queens College.

“Professors used to tell me ‘you have to choose, being an engineer or playing tennis,’” said Rashad.

After advancing from junior-level competition, many tennis players must pay for their own expenses to continue playing. Even Rashad could not afford to play past the national level in engineering school. Despite the cost and time commitment, the players shared a strong desire to continue playing tennis.

“I felt empty. I felt like something is missing,” said Knezevic, who had to quit playing tennis after attending the University of Belgrade. “I didn’t want to stop then.”

The United States posed an alluring alternative for the players to get a degree and play tennis. The country itself has a distinguished reputation around the world.

“They had an article because I go to America, it’s like something special because my whole high school class stayed where they lived,” said Luisa Auffarth, 20, of a local newspaper from her small 700-people town of Butjadening, Germany. “I was the only one going to a different continent.”

New York City holds even greater prestige for Europeans.

“I sell New York,” said Head Coach Alan Nagel, who has coached the women’s tennis team for 40 years. “Everybody wants to come to New York.”

As a Division II school in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Queens College athletics cannot afford full-ride scholarships for all its players. Four players transferred from better-funded Division I schools to play at Queens College.

Laura Jover, 21, got a full-ride scholarship to play D1 tennis at Keiser University in Florida. Back in Spain, Laura had been studying English for a year before attending Keiser. Yet, she often had difficulty communicating with her coaches and her teammates, who were all American.

“So many times, I didn’t understand nothing, and they didn’t have patience,” said Jover.

Division I schools tend to put more pressure on their athletes.

“The mentality at my old school was more tennis and then school is coming after,” said Louisa Brunetti, 22, who played in D1 at Sacramento State University. “I was not very confident on the court. I laid so much pressure on myself, and I expected so much that it’s really – just was overwhelming.”

After transferring to Queens College, her perspective on tennis changed.

“We had fun. We laughed,” said Brunetti. “I didn’t feel disliked. I didn’t feel that I was being overlooked the whole time.”

A unique feature of American collegiate tennis is that the focus is on team play and collective success, as opposed to the singles-centered style of tennis play in the rest of the world.

“There’s someone to share the craziness with them,” said Coach Nagel. “They don’t have their parents, but they have each other.”

Rosemary Stribling is the director for the Runner Ambassador program at California State University which helps international student-athletes adjust to life in the United States.

“As an athlete, you’re with your team most of the time,” said Stribling. “International student-athletes already have that family experience with their team.”

Seven of the players share the same house and the others live only a few blocks away.

“We are like a small family,” said Laura Jover.

“I feel like this is more like a home for me,” said Lovisa Engstrand, 22, who transferred to Queens College this fall. “Last year, I wanted to go home sometimes.”

Most of the players are planning to work in the US after graduating through the Optional Practical Training program which allows students on an F-1 visa to gain temporary employment for one year.

“If I didn’t have a desire to return to my family, I would try to stay,” said Line Aasen, 21 of Norway. “I will look back at this experience in 5, 10, 20 years and appreciate much more than I do now.”

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The Egyptian Sharapova

Open to a shot of pink Nike shoes moving in between Velcro squares as part of an athletic drill. The scene is muted by a grayscale filter and contains a hint of background music. Close-up on a tennis racket in motion, making a volley.

Cut to sequins reflecting brightly across an adorned silver dress. The dress is seen through a mirror as its owner, Reehan Rashad, contemplates her visage in the reflection. Her voice fills the background as she narrates the commercial for the dresses’ designer.

“I like the camera,” said Reehan, a senior-year student at Queens College majoring in Media Studies.

She was born in 1995 when her father, Magid Rashad, and mother, Wafaa Mohamed, used to live in Brooklyn. Her younger brother, Kareem Rashad, joined the family five years later. Mr.Rashad worked as an accountant in downtown Manhattan, next to the World Trade Center; on September 11th, his family watched as the planes crashed into the skyscrapers.

“We moved after 9/11,” said Reehan. “My parents wanted to raise us in Egypt and the situation after 9/11 was really bad for Arabs.”

In Egypt, Reehan inherited an athletic legacy. Mr.Rashad played on the Egyptian National Field Hockey team for 13 years and Mohamed played handball in her youth. It was only natural for Reehan to play a sport, so they signed her up for the Smouha sports club in Alexandria when she was six years old. A private club with a fee upwards of 600,000 Egyptian pounds, Smouha provided different facilities for many sports. Her mom decided on tennis for her.

“You can play at any age” in tennis, said Mohamed. “She moved fast, and she loved the game.”

Mohamed used to watch her daughter practice every single day.

“My mother was pushing me really hard in the beginning,” said Reehan. “I liked the skirts and stuff, so that’s why I was playing when I was younger.”

Her motivation changed immediately after she won her first tournament at ten years old.

“When I won that trophy, I was like ‘I love this game,’” said Reehan.

Her favorite player has always been Maria Sharapova. She used to buy her clothes and emulate her on the court.

“They called me in Egypt, the Egyptian Sharapova,” said Reehan. “I do everything she does. Even my style of playing- it’s close to hers.”

Reehan convinced her brother Kareem to start playing tennis when he was five years old in spite of Mohamed’s desire to have him play basketball.

“I told him you have to play tennis,” said Reehan. “I used to take him into my room and tell him ‘no, you’re not listening to anyone else.’”

They practiced together in the smouha clubs, attended the same private schools and eventually competed together on the international level.

“Because she was playing, I liked tennis,” said Kareem.

Reehan began playing for Egypt in the International Tennis Federation Junior tournament in 2008. By 2014, both Reehan and Kareem played on the Egyptian national team as the #6 female and #2 male player in the country.

“I had my ups and downs, but I made the name,” said Reehan. “I was never an easy match for someone.”

There were 24 two-week tournaments throughout the year, 21 of those in Cairo, so the pair would always travel together to compete in Cairo.

“I lived in Cairo in the hotels more than my home,” said Reehan.

The siblings missed months of school because of tournaments.

“In Egypt if you are an athlete and you don’t have time, the professor will go ‘you want to be an athlete? Go and play tennis.’” said Kareem. “Either study or play sports. You have to choose.”

After graduating from high school, Reehan enrolled into the engineering school at Alexandria University to study architecture and construction while still playing tennis on the national level. At the time, she was also the owner of a small advertising company.

“I had a 1.8 GPA,” said Reehan. “I was managing the company and tennis very well.”

The coursework standards are more rigorous than the United States’; the University of Alexandria expected her to take seven classes each semester for five years. One late night, after hours of working to draft blueprints for one of her classes, Reehan injured her back.

“It’s very difficult to make a tennis player with education, with time, with homework,” said Mohamed.

In 2015, Reehan had a falling out with Smouha after one of the board members tried to oust her from the club in favor of her rival.

“They hung my name on the club gates saying that I can’t enter, I can’t practice,” said Reehan.

Soon after, she applied to hundreds of college tennis programs in the United States. Queens College Head Coach Alan Nagel recognized her talent and invited her to join the team.

“Here’s a girl that has played on the national level,” said Nagel. “She can be a superstar.”

She moved into the women’s tennis house and began attending Queens College in the Spring of 2016.

“I was kinda scared about this move and living alone in a different country,” said Reehan. “My first year here, I was crying every day.”

She yearned to return to Egypt, but her proud nature spurred her to prove to Smouha and her hometown that she could find success in America.

“In life, she’s a fighter,” said Kareem. “When somebody tells her you can’t do something, she’s like, ‘No, I can do it.’”

Kareem stayed in contact with her nearly every day. By 2018, they began playing side by side again after Reehan helped Kareem gain a spot on the men’s tennis team at Queens College.

“She told me how to apply to college, how to apply for my courses. Everything,” said Kareem.

Now the siblings live with their parents in a house right next to Queens College.

Reehan will soon graduate in the Spring of 2019. After graduating from Queens College, she aspires to play tennis professionally while working as a broadcast journalist in Egypt.

She has used her platform as a renowned tennis player to become an advocate for women’s rights. She has appeared on Egyptian news broadcasts to talk about the issue.

“All the channels started calling me, and they wanted to do interviews,” said Reehan. “I don’t mind. I always wanted to be famous.”

 

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Entrepreneur of Hash

Michael Lewis of Queens, New York.

Herb, green, hash, dank. A gram, a G, an eighth, an ounce, a dub, a dime.

This is just a few terms that those employed in the business of selling marijuana illegally must understand to communicate with their clientele.

“First time I started was towards the end of eighth grade. I wasn’t big into it but I realized I could make money off of it,” said Michael Lewis (it’s a pseudo-name, at his request.)

Michael is a 25-year-old, small in stature, with jet-black wavy hair that parts itself on the left without any effort on his part. He dresses casually—t-shirts paired with half open button-down shirts, joggers or jeans, and sneakers. There’s a cadence to the way he speaks that became more apparent the longer I spoke to him.

Michael has lived with his parents in the same Queens home since he was born. He has two older brothers, now in their 40’s, but he mostly considers himself an only child.

“They were out doing their thing,” he said, “I was an only child most of the time.”

He was raised Catholic and from kindergarten until fifth grade, he attended a private Catholic school. The rest of his adolescent years were spent in public schools in Queens. He no longer practices Catholicism.

“I grew out of it, I guess,” he said.

In the eighth grade, Michael began working as a dealer. It was a minor aspect of his life at the time, a way to make a bit of money for himself.

It was in high school where Michael began dealing in earnest. He was a restless student who couldn’t sit for long periods of time.

“I went to high school but never really went. I went to parties—meet people and just selling. That’s it.”

After graduating from high school, Michael went to trade school, but he quickly became impatient with the curriculum and dropped out. Afterwards, he developed an interest in automotive technology and started working in body shops. He aspires to own his own body shop one day.

“Maintain the hustle and save up, save enough money and own my own body shop.”

Over the years, he has steadily increased his revenue and clientele base. He stresses the importance of his clients and how notoriety or popularity can help increase his bottom line.

“It’s about the money and making yourself known. Not too known of course,” he added with uncharacteristic urgency.

Michael talks about dealing in a nonchalant way that make it seem as if he’s talking about another day in the office. In the past, he has dealt pot to supplement the money he was making from a legitimate job. But there are times when dealing has become his only source of income. Just like now.

“It’s always been on and off. I haven’t continuously sold. I am looking for something to do, a steady job.”

Working as a dealer comes with its own caveats.

“People will call you at 4:00 AM. You can be readily available, or you can ignore that call.”

He tends to ignore it. He spends most days waiting for clients to place an order. Clients can reach him on his cellphone nearly any time of the day.

“I wake up, check if anyone needs anything, create a delivery route… things pop up,” he said. “Paydays are when clients hit you up in advance.”

Michael’s favorite part of dealing is that it requires a lot of movement and travel. He also enjoys meeting people, the public relations aspect to selling that is an integral part of building a large clientele base.

“There’s drug dealers everywhere, they’re a dime a dozen,” he said. “You can make this steady, but you always have to be on the move. There’s people that go state to state.”

Some days he doesn’t have to work at all.

“There’s days that it’s really dry. You just hang out.”

However, the illicit market for marijuana is risky and saturated with workplace hazards and other dealers looking to make fast money. Selling can quickly become challenging or dangerous.

“There’s a lot of competition,” Michael said. “People will try to sabotage your setup. It can go bad in a lot of ways. There’s moments you get pushed to do things you don’t wanna do.”

The threat of arrest constantly looms even though he has never been caught. He gets especially tense when making deliveries.

“If you’re riding with an eighth, then it’s no problem. But if you have an ounce, then you’re riding dirty. When you’re meeting a client, you don’t know who you’re meeting. You always have to be ready to run if anything happens. It’s always in the back of your mind.”

Michael is aware of the insecurity of selling marijuana as a source of income.

“I don’t plan to do this forever, it has its risks. You risk your freedom. You risk losing everything in a matter of seconds… Lives get ruined because of this, that’s the main reason why I’d stop.”

He figures he’ll sell for another five years. He is also thinking about returning to school to study automotive technology or medicine.

“I never gave it a shot,” he said. “It’s never too late.”

The biggest obstacle to his returning to school is his attention span.

“Maybe if I quiet my mind enough, I can commit to it,” he said.

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A Taste of Ecuador

 

When I was a child, Papi never told me how he arrived in the United States. It wasn’t because I hadn’t asked him.

Hidden on the cargo section of a plane, my father made his way across the border.

One time, he evaded detection from law enforcement in the luggage compartment of a train headed to the United States.

In another version of the story, he swam through a rio to get to the US.

“When I arrived in this country, I got here illegally. I didn’t have any documentation. I crossed the border of Mexico like thousands and millions of people who came to this country illegally looking for a better life.”

In 1990, my father was one of 85,000 Ecuadorians that lived in New York City. By 2015, the Ecuadorian population had nearly tripled to 223,000 people.

“I lived with my uncle and my cousins in Manhattan in a really small apartment with two bedrooms. There were six of us in that apartment. He gave me a place to stay and I lived with him for 8 or 9 years.”

Queens has become an enclave for many Ecuadorians. More than 122,000 live in the borough.

My dad rents an apartment in Lefrak City, a large housing complex situated in Corona. It’s the same apartment from my childhood, but he lives there with his Ecuadorian wife and their daughter now.

He used to take me and my sisters along Roosevelt Avenue to shop and eat. Hidden underneath the 7 line, Roosevelt Avenue is a hotpot of many different Hispanic cultures. The Spanish on the street is interrupted by the sound of subway trains passing overhead.

On the corner of Warren St. and Roosevelt Avenue, there are a half a dozen food carts lined up along the entire block. They each look different but serve the same food of Ecuador. The employees are nearly all Ecuadorians. So are the customers who dine out in droves throughout the day.

The carts serve food of all regions, from Quito to Guayaquil. You can order a shrimp ceviche from the costa at one cart and get pork fritada from the Sierra at the next.

“I was born here, but I’ve lived in Ecuador. My parents are from Guayaquil.”

If you’re lucky, you can find Senora Lamolina cooking brocheta over homemade ovens made from shopping carts. The chicken, onions, and peppers slowly cook to a crisp on the aluminum foil. The aroma of the seared meat on wooden sticks hangs in the air.

Lamolina was hesitant to speak with me when I started interviewing her. Like most of the employees I spoke to, she came to this country illegally. Asking too many questions made her uneasy.

“Well, an angel brought me here. I can’t tell you more than that.”

Everyone I spoke to believed they were better off here than in Ecuador.

“To get to know (the United States). Now that I have the opportunity, here I am.”

“The economic situation of our country—the same motivation for most people that immigrate here. Of course, to improve my financial situation and my family’s situation.”

“I immigrated to this country to have a better life. To help my siblings and my father who were still in Ecuador. And to improve my financial life.”

There is a rich history behind every employee that works at the food carts. If you ever find yourself on Roosevelt Avenue, stop by the carts. I suggest you try the pork fritada, it’s my favorite.

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A working father of New York

Tazi, right, at work in the Shah’s Halal cart on Melbourne Ave and Kissena Blvd. He quickly leaves after his shift to pick up his son from an afterschool program.

Mohamed Tazi begins every day at 6:15 AM in the morning with his wife. They wake up their two sons at 7:00 AM, Tazi cooks breakfast for his sons while his wife heads to work. He drives them to school and arrives at work by 8:00 AM. After he finishes his shift at 5:30 PM he picks up his two sons and spends the rest of the evening with his family at home. This is the everyday routine.

Tazi works at a Shah’s Halal cart situated near Queens College on Kissena Blvd and Melbourne Ave. His steady routine has been developed over the decade that Tazi has worked at the cart. His time at the cart has made him a fixture of the Queens College community where he serves dozens of students every single day.

“I love my job” said Tazi, “it pays my bills and I save some. My favorite part is I get payed in cash.”

The daily grind of Tazi’s lifestyle leaves little room for much else besides his faith, work and family. Tazi works every day except for weekends. His Fridays are spent observing Jumu’ah, when Muslims gather for midday prayer; Saturdays are spent with his wife since that is one of her days off from work.

“I dedicate my Fridays to prayer,” said Tazi. “At night, my wife and I watch TV and then we go to sleep.”

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