clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Giannis Through the Eyes of Milwaukee Refugees

Long before he was dominating the NBA playoffs, Antetokounmpo was an undocumented child living on the periphery of Greek society. Refugees who have settled in his new home in the Midwest share stories of their journeys, and a kinship that is felt, but not necessarily seen.

Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Even at the crack of sunrise, blue Milwaukee County Transit System buses flash a warning along their marquees before telling you their route.

FEAR THE DEER!

Basketball, long the third-tier citizen of Milwaukee’s professional sports hierarchy, has taken over the city. There are vinyl banners hung up all around town with the now-ubiquitous rhyming slogan, popularized nearly a decade ago when a rookie Brandon Jennings led a scrappy defensive-minded unit to a seven-game series in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks. Fear the Deer was a false alarm then; the warning rings a lot louder these days.

Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, 24, has put together an MVP-caliber season the likes of which the NBA hasn’t seen in decades. He is, without question, the best player the franchise has seen in more than 40 years, with only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar impeding his path to being considered its greatest. Milwaukee is back in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 18 years, and the favorite to make its first Finals appearance in 45 years. These Bucks might just be the biggest threat the Warriors have faced during their dynasty.

The city has responded in kind. In parts of town, “Go Bucks!” has become Milwaukee’s “aloha.” I walk through Zaffiro’s Pizza, a 65-year-old institution, where a framed Giannis jersey greets you to the left upon entry, and where a bartender and regular are in the middle of negotiating over prime postseason tickets at the newly constructed Fiserv Forum. And with just under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter of the Bucks’ decisive second-round series win in Game 5 at home against the Celtics, I am stunned by the animal roar of the Fiserv crowd as Giannis flushes a sidecocked tomahawk dunk. In the moment, Antetokounmpo, in stride and silhouette, bears an uncanny resemblance to a skying LeBron James.

“A lot of people say that I can be the face of the league,” Antetokounmpo told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this year. “But, man, if I can’t be the face of the league being me, I don’t want to be the face of the league.”

Being me, in this instance, had little to do with Giannis’s on-court style. His long jumper’s hang time, his power running downhill, his vision and ability to whip the ball from angles most men could only dream of—his game is the platonic ideal of an NBA superstar. Being me was addressing doubts that his inner circle had that he could become the central figure of a premier American sports league as a non-American, as a proud Greek and the son of Nigerian immigrants.

After that Game 5 win, Giannis expressed his awe toward the Milwaukee crowd; he’d never seen the community more excited about basketball. Antetokounmpo is representing a city that can feel itself on the verge of something great. But during my time in Milwaukee, I find myself thinking about how Giannis has become a much-needed symbol for people in the city who have no idea he exists. Giannis is on a fast track to becoming one of the most popular athletes in the world, but he was once an undocumented child living on the periphery of Greek society. He was a stateless person who made a home in Milwaukee. I want to meet the refugees in the city trying to do the same.

I enter through the back door of a shared office building on the south side of Milwaukee, less than 2 miles north of the airport. I am given vague instructions—no suite number, just the first door on the left. The building is completely devoid of noise. It’s just before 8 p.m. I slowly open the door to the left and see a man, barefoot on the floor, with his legs crossed. “Hello,” he says gently. “Are you Mr. Danny?”

It’s the end of the first week of Ramadan, and I’ve made plans to join a few members of the Rohingya community as they break fast. The man greeting me is Anuwar Kasim, the executive director of the Burmese Rohingya Community of Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization formed to assist Rohingya refugees in Wisconsin as they adapt to life in the United States. The Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority of Myanmar with roots in the country since the eighth century, have for decades faced one of the starkest refugee crises in the world. They are a stateless people who, by law, receive no recognition from Myanmar as citizens, and face constant persecution that has veered toward genocide. Wisconsin’s number of incoming refugees has plummeted, consistent with nationwide trends under the Donald Trump administration, but refugees from Myanmar have accounted for a significant percentage of total arrivals over the past five years. At somewhere more than 2,000, Milwaukee probably has the largest Rohingya refugee population in the U.S.

Our iftar, the fast-breaking evening meal of Ramadan, is a modest potluck shared on the floor. The community members bring Tupperware containers of watermelon slices, a fiery chickpea curry, and egg rolls filled with shrimp, carrots, and mushrooms. Kasim unstacks his tiffin box of curried stir-fried noodles, fried eggs (with the yolk still runny), and a bright slaw of cucumber and thinly shredded cabbage, with a dizzying preponderance of whole green Thai chilies on top. Earlier in the day, I was told by the BRCW’s cofounder, Andrew Trumbull, that the food would be a bit spicy; I take a few of the chilies and pop them whole, in hopes of either ingratiating myself in their company, or at least creating a light-hearted conversation starter. “At first, Andrew was—” Kasim says before he makes the exaggerated sounds of a Midwestern white man gasping at the heat levels of Southeast Asian food. “But he kept eating. Now he can eat it. Now he is Rohingya.”

Rohingya community members share a meal at sundown during the first week of Ramadan.
Danny Chau

Styrofoam plates are loaded up quickly and indiscriminately—it’s all getting shoveled down anyway. The men have come from long shifts at entry-level jobs in factories—mostly plastic or food-processing—and haven’t had any food or water since sunrise. They talk about their day. “This,” Kasim notes, “this is the happiest part of Ramadan.”

Kasim is in his early 40s. His English is proficient; back home in Myanmar, he worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as an interpreter before he was resettled here in 2015. Kasim is one of the lucky ones, having been born in the last generation of Rohingya who were able to go to school in Myanmar; the generations since have been denied all access to education. The U.N. has described the Rohingya as the most persecuted minority in the world, and as such, they face a learning curve as steep as any as far as adapting to the United States—and that’s after the vetting process, which can take 10 to 20 years. Given that less than 1 percent of refugees around the world are able to resettle in a new country, Kasim likens a refugee being granted U.S. admittance to a newborn baby—not only in how thoroughly they’re screened, but in how much there is to learn.

“The process is very extreme,” Kasim says. “After coming to U.S., people mostly struggle because they don’t know the language, and we have to also know that these people are coming from the very least developed countries to a superpower country. There is a big, huge gap.”

“Their minds are swirling with a million other things, and they have to try and retain all this stuff about American life and what it’s gonna take,” Trumbull tells me. “And there’s a lot to it. When you come from a refugee camp, shanties, and nothing—and now you have an apartment. So how do you clean it? … What’s OK? Are bugs OK? Are mice OK? There’s no real choice in that matter if you’re in a refugee camp.”

To make matters even more untenable, the Rohingya language has no formal alphabet; it is almost strictly a verbal language. Kasim is one of the few Rohingya in Milwaukee who can speak and read English well enough to read mail, let alone technical language found in court or medical documents. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough resources for him to do for the community what he wants to. “A lot of pressure and a lot of time deficit,” he says. “I want to do a lot, but I’m alone only, you know? I cannot.”

Kasim serves as a medical interpreter at Aurora Health Care, Wisconsin’s largest home care organization. I walk past the Aurora pharmacy several times during my stay; above one of the entrance gates hangs a vinyl FEAR THE DEER banner. I ask Kasim about the Bucks, about what he knows of the professional sports franchise that has brought new life to much of the city this season. For refugees like Kasim, they may as well be from another planet.

“I heard of this, but again, because of the situations, we are a bit away from the sports,” Kasim says. “We don’t have any chance. But now, I come here, I’m working at the community center, at the same time fulfilling other responsibilities, so time is pretty busy. So I don’t get the time to self-care.” Kasim, often solemn and deliberate in his speech, couldn’t help but let out a smile, having essentially wrapped the term “self-care” in sonic air quotes.

I tell him about Giannis.

He lives here in Milwaukee?

About how he’s one of the best basketball players in the world.

He’s from here or he came here with his parents?

About how, as a child, he, too, had no official claim to the home he had always known. About how he would peddle sunglasses, DVDs, and whatever else he could to make 200 or 300 euros a month for his family. And how his status as an undocumented person meant knowing that at any moment, police could ask his parents for their documentation, and that they could be sent back to Nigeria in an instant. Kasim cuts me off.

“Sometimes I don’t understand,” he says. “In some parts of the world, the humanity is so low that if you are going to [introduce] yourself, they don’t believe. You have to show some sort of paper to say that my name is blah blah blah. Only then they believe. Undocumented. ‘Show me the document.’ It’s so easy for them to wipe other people away.”

“Fear the Deer” banner hanging from the entrance gate to the Aurora Pharmacy in Milwaukee.
Danny Chau

The night before meeting Kasim and the Rohingya community, I spend my night at Damascus Gate, the city’s first and only Syrian restaurant, for an iftar buffet dinner. Upon entrance, patrons walk past a makeshift bridge leading to a large wooden post. It’s as close to the actual gate of Damascus as you’ll get in Milwaukee. “I didn’t name” the restaurant, says owner Ahmad Nasef. “The refugees named it. They say, ‘When you open that door, to be the gate to Syria. The peaceful gate to Syria.’”

Down the center of the restaurant, just past the gate, is a long table lined with chafing dishes of kabab hindi and stuffed grape leaves, enormous pans of maqlooba with chicken, and aluminum trays of fried kibbeh and spinach pies—all prepared by two Syrian refugees in the kitchen, both of whom had fasted in observance of Ramadan.

“They did not expect the reaction from the American people, because they’re still scared,” Nasef says. “They’ve been scared for like five years in refugee camps. When they came here and found the support from everybody—the customers that came, the love that they’ve shown them—this is priceless.”

Damascus Gate, which opened in January, has become a starting point for an array of Milwaukee’s refugees. Among the employees are four Syrian refugees—three coming from the Zaatari camp in Jordan, and one from Egypt—two Somali refugees, one from Gaza, one from Sudan, and one from India who escaped the conflict in Kashmir. “The plan was open something for whoever needs work, so they can pay it forward,” Nasef says. Refugees “have a lot of pride. They come and ask for help because they cannot cover their rent. Nobody hires them because they don’t speak the language—and even when they hire them, they give them minimum wages—not even. One of the girls that works here, her husband went to work carrying concrete—they gave him $5 an hour to work and then they took $1.50 in taxes. So who would work for $3.50? This is illegal, it shouldn’t happen in this country. … And you can see it in their faces. They’re crying because they got into that position. My goal, why I did this, to save their dignity.”

Nasef, a Milwaukee-based physician, immigrated to the U.S. from Syria in 1992 to attend medical school in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s spent more of his life in the state than in his home of Damascus. He’d begun volunteer work and refugee support long before the crisis in his homeland, sparked by something he’d seen on CNN back in med school—footage showed a father protecting his son as bullets caught them both. “And I felt so hopeless in that moment, that everybody’s watching and nobody’s doing anything,” Nasef says. “I told my wife at that time—I will never, ever see a helpless man and not help him.”

The Syrian refugee crisis only furthered his resolve. The country has been embroiled in civil war for the past eight years under the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Entire cities—and all the infrastructure that had allowed them to function—have been destroyed, displacing millions. The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has the total number of Syrian refugees at more than 5.6 million. Nasef knew Assad personally; only a few years separated them at the University of Damascus.

Nasef has traveled to Turkey in recent years to help out with refugees, once as a physician, and once as an interpreter. On one trip, he recalls walking with his wife down Istiklal Street in Istanbul’s Taksim neighborhood back to their hotel room. A girl, maybe 9 years old, rushed out in front of him. Please Uncle, please Uncle, can you buy some bottled water from me? From her accent, he could tell she was Syrian. She was from Aleppo, selling what she could to support her family—her father and mother had died, and it was on her and her older brother to look after their younger siblings and grandmother. The bottle of water cost 1 lira; Nasef took out his wallet and handed her everything he had. She told him to wait as she got him change, but before he could refuse, she’d sniped back: Uncle, I am not begging. I am working.

“I swear to you, I cried all night that night,” Nasef says. “She had so much pride. And I put myself in her place, and I would have took the money and walked away. No. I am working, not begging. She forced me to take all the water that she had or she would not take the money from me.”

Just as Nasef’s voice begins to shake, his mother walks into the restaurant, spots him, and holds his hand; he kisses her hand repeatedly.

“Any refugee—I know, because I encountered Syrian refugees—but I think any refugee is resilient. You would not believe,” Nasef says. “You ask a kid who has lost everything in life—you ask, ‘How are you doing?’ He’ll say, ‘Thanks God. I am doing better than other people. I didn’t lose an arm or an eye.’ He’s like 10 years old, lost his mom and dad and brother and sister, and everybody. So how can you defeat these people? You cannot. They will teach you to be strong and move forward, move forward all the time.”

Without documentation, material possessions, or much of an acknowledged public identity, family becomes the only tangible thing for many refugees to hold on to. From my talks with the community, it becomes clear how that dynamic concentrates amid the daily struggles and persists long after the traumas subside. The original husband-and-wife team in the kitchen at Damascus Gate no longer work at the restaurant. The long hours away from their children reinforced their separation anxiety; they now cater from their home with the help of Nasef. Ultimately, the mentality of refugees and migrants in search of a better life always comes down to the security of the next generation. It’s a mentality that Antetokounmpo, even in all his personal success, hasn’t been able to let go of.

“I think about where I was four years ago, on the streets, and where I am today, able to take care of my kids and my grandkids and their grandkids,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “I’m not saying that in a cocky way or a disrespectful way. But it is a crazy story, isn’t it?”

The idea of legacy, especially in professional sports, is a bit convoluted: a way to preserve the ego in an indestructible black box before one’s retirement. But legacy, for most people, is as much about sacrifice as it is preservation—to the point where the two disparate concepts seem to reflect the same end. The legacy most families hope to leave behind is simply a future ripe with possibility for their children, but given the situations that most have to endure, that requires a kind of surrender that divests one’s own ambition in favor of paying it forward to the next generation.

“We talk about what the [the Rohingya’s] hopes are, and their expectations, and it almost seems like they’ve written their lives off in favor of their children’s,” Trumbull says. As the cofounder of the Burmese Rohingya Community of Wisconsin, Trumbull has spent years with the refugee community, internalizing their struggles and finding inroads to help them seek self-improvement. “I mean, everybody you will ask, you ask what’s important. They’re going to tell you their kids. Right? And it’s not like they’re giving up. They work hard. It’s just, as an American I want more for them. I want them to want more. And there’s only so much we can do to spur them on, but it has to come from them, too.”

Trumbull, himself, is carrying on a family legacy. He is the first cousin (many times removed) of Jonathan Trumbull, a governor of Connecticut before the Revolutionary War, and the first governor to oppose British rule. His third-great-grandfather was Lyman Trumbull, an Illinois senator who coauthored the 13th Amendment, the country’s first civil rights act.

“I think that’s one of the biggest driving factors in my life: What it means to be a citizen,” Trumbull says. “And it might seem strange for other Americans to see this white guy cofounding an organization that supports a Muslim group. You know, typically you’d see birds of a feather in some context. I don’t know if it’s weird or not, but I guess for me personally, the message is: It’s about the equality. It’s about supporting everybody here. When I think about the United States, and what the United States stands for, I’m proud to represent that in the best way that I know how. And it’s in a very similar way that my family has done since before this country became the country it is today.”

Six years ago this month, Giannis’s life changed forever. At 18 years old, just one month before the 2013 NBA draft, he and his older brother, Thanasis, were awarded Greek citizenship, the skeleton key to a viable financial future for the Antetokounmpo family. (Their lack of documentation up to that point had prevented them from playing in domestic professional leagues and from being able to travel outside the country.) When Giannis argues that his non-Americannness is nonnegotiable, it’s an assertion of identity, after years of undocumented status in his home of Greece left just about everything in life uncertain. It’s an example to follow.

“If Giannis would come say hi to those refugees, that would mean the world to them,” Nasef says. “I love the guy. My kid’s infatuated by him. We go a lot to the Bucks games—we have good seats. But I don’t think [most refugees] are capable of seeing any of it, because first, they don’t have time, so they can’t afford it. And I think connecting a refugee with refugee, that will tell the American people that we’re stronger standing together, all as one unit.”

An earlier version of this piece misstated that Antetokounmpo and his family were refugees; his parents emigrated from Nigeria to Greece, and while he and his brothers were all undocumented, they were not refugees.

NBA

Will Neil Olshey’s Ouster Lead to the End of the Damian Lillard Era in Portland?

The Mismatch

Describing the Grizzlies’ Record-Setting Night, What to Do in Portland, and Changing the Thought Process for DPOY

The Ryen Russillo Podcast

Potential CFB Upset Picks and Brian Kelly to LSU With Booger McFarland, Plus Former NBA Star Turned Boxer Deron Williams

View all stories in NBA