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Lakewood High All-American Learned Soccer Skills In Refugee Camp

Lakewood High School senior Malvin Gblah is a soccer All-American [Patch.com]
In his Lakewood High School soccer uniform, All-American Malvin Gblah waves

The 19th Greater Cleveland Sports Awards will be handed out Wednesday evening, and one of the nominees is Lakewood High School student Malvin Gblah. He plays soccer for the Rangers and is its all-time leader in assists, third in career goals scored, and fourth in games played.

But Lakewood’s not the first city he’s lived in or even his first country.

I was born in a war, even though I was not grew up there,” Gblah explained. “And then, going back to Liberia recently, I experienced Ebola crisis, like all that. I experienced it. So I saw a lot of people die and other stuff.”

As a result of the Liberian civil war, Gblah’s family wound up in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast, where the future soccer star was born. 

Gblah’s mother eventually was allowed to come to the States, but a then five-year-old Malvin could not. He lived with his father in a household with 20 children, headed by an aunt who was a physician.

When he was finally allowed to emigrate, he reunited with his mom in Lakewood.

He entered the high school in 2015 as a freshman and wanted to play the game he grew up with in Africa. 

Lakewood High soccer coach Andrew Toth says he knew at first glance that the kid had serious skills.

“You get kids like that are very dynamic. Their first touch is amazing,” said Toth. “He does have a special mental toughness that it takes to survive at a high level in sports, and I think that has a lot to do with his resilience and his ability to overcome difficult situations through life with a smile.”

“There's a great mental approach to the game. It's thinking ahead, it's making decisions in a split second, and he's pretty good at that. He sees things on the field that even I as a coach get mesmerized by,” said Coach Toth of his star player Malvin Gblah.

The player-coach respect is reciprocal.

“From the first day he saw me, and he not even know me, but he just have the belief in me, believe that I can do it and then he make a lot of sacrifices for me,” said Gblah.

His list of honors includes High School All-American.

A Second Family in Lakewood

In Lakewood, the diversity of the city and school helped Gblah feel accepted. The district includes students from 35 different countries, using just as many languages.

“Lakewood is so special. They have a lot of students like me. So a lot of foreign kids,” said Gblah. “So I just fit in in Lakewood because they are so much supportive like teachers, counselors, like everyone just so much supportive not in just high school but this community too is a cool community and I love the high school.”

Megan Nagel and her husband Ted have known Gblah since he and their son Mack played soccer together. When Gblah’s mom took a job in Philadelphia, leaving the teen alone in an apartment, the Nagels thought it was natural to bring him to their home.

I certainly try to guide him when I can, and help him in the classroom and get him the help that he needs if I can’t do it,” said Ted Nagel.

They say he’s appreciative, happy, and likes Megan’s cooking.

“Watching him on the field was amazing. It was it was great to be able to be a part of that. And he's a great kid.” - Megan Nagel 

Gblah’s status as one of only 68 All-American soccer players in the nation would likely allow him to choose from colleges anywhere, but Gblah says he’d like to stick near his second family.

“They’re so supportive and I mean it’s not like they’re over there pressuring,” said Gblah. “They just leave everything to me, like treat me as one of their own.”

From his life experiences in Africa and Lakewood, Gblah had one thing to say on refugees and assimilation.

“I would just like people know like, no one should see like refugees as bad,” he said. “People need to go out there and make connections with those kids, maybe invite some of them for dinner or go over to their house, have dinner with them because a lot of refugee kids, like me, are going through hardship and stuff and they just need people to talk to.”

Rick Jackson is a senior host and producer at Ideastream Public Media. He hosts the "Sound of Ideas" on WKSU and "NewsDepth" on WVIZ.