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From Iraq to Oaxaca, two American brothers are chasing soccer dream

Yohan, left, and Yousuf Zetuna have gone from playing soccer in the streets of Iraq as children, to the high school ranks in Michigan, and now on a professional level in Oaxaca.

Yousuf and Yohan Zetuna will often mix in Mexican slang and Spanish words into conversations among themselves. The two teenage brothers and teammates who are awaiting their professional soccer debut will bounce from Spanish, to English, to Arabic, to the Chaldean and Assyrian languages common in the northern region of their native Iraq. They are strangers in a strange land in Oaxaca, a city in southeast Mexico known for its historic architectural gems.

It is in Oaxaca that the two Iraqi-born Americans are on the cusp of fulfilling a lifelong goal. In January, Yousuf and Yohan signed professional contracts with Oaxaca's second-division soccer team, the Alebrijes. The Zetunas didn't travel to the state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico with their teammates to face Diego Maradona's Dorados this weekend (10 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN Deportes), so their debuts remain on hold. Still, that the brothers are on a professional club based more than halfway around the world from their birthplace is a testament to a shared determination developed after fleeing the horrors of the Iraq War.

"We used to be able to play on the streets as kids [in Iraq]; it was safe," said Yousuf, the elder of the two at 19. "Then the terrorists came to our town."

More than two million Iraqis left within four years of the U.S.-led invasion of their country in 2003, prompting the United Nations to declare a humanitarian crisis. The subsequent conflicts after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime created a worldwide diaspora and forever changed the lives of the Zetuna family.

Yousuf was 9 in 2008 when war and terrorism drove the Zetunas -- father Salwan, mother Suzan, older brother Simon, older sister Swedlan, and Yohan -- out of their hometown of Tel Kaif in northern Iraq.

The Zetunas, who practice the Christian faith, thus began a journey as religious exiles. They headed for Turkey, where they lived in a U.N. camp with thousands of other Iraqis displaced because of a war that claimed around 200,000 civilian lives from 2003 on, according to Iraq Body Count, a website which tracks deaths related to the conflict since the invasion.

"My parents, I get the feeling they don't like to talk about it [the Iraq War]," Yousuf said.

In Turkey, Yousuf and Yohan recalled how refugee children would gather after school to play their favorite sport. Kids from different countries would gather, speaking different languages but all understanding soccer.

The Zetuna brothers: Yousuf (left), Simon (center) and Yohan (right) were refugees in a UN camp in Turkey for 10 months.
From left: Zetuna brothers Yousuf, Simon y Yohan lived in a U.N. refugee camp in Turkey as religious exiles with other Iraqis who were displaced by war and terrorism.

After 10 months in that country, the Zetunas arrived in the United States on May 15, 2009.

Through it all, Yousuf and Yohan continued to develop their love of soccer. While in Iraq, the two idolized Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, who would go on to star as teammates with Spanish giants Real Madrid. As budding players, the siblings honed their game upon settling in Sterling Heights, a suburb of Detroit. Michigan is home to one out of every four Iraqi Americans, including the largest concentration of Iraqi Christians, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

It was in the Midwest that the family pushed to remake their lives in a new country. Salwan, who owned a cement factory in Iraq, started a trucking company. Suzan worked at a local supermarket. Yousuf and Yohan, meanwhile, starred for Athens High School in nearby Troy, Michigan.

And then, opportunity knocked. After a visit from their uncle Sabhan Zetuna two years ago, Yousuf, who plays striker, and Yohan, a central defender, made a speculative trip to Oaxaca.

"[Our uncle] saw us play and saw how passionate we are, so he invited us to come down," Yousuf said.

A refugee himself, Sabhan had moved to Oaxaca more than two decades earlier, thanks to an established Zetuna family connection in Mexico. Once settled as a manager at a construction company, Sabhan would eventually form friendships with some of the local pro soccer club's employees.

"My uncle knew some of them and basically said, 'Try them out. If they're good enough, great; if they're not, I can send them back," Yousuf said.

Oaxaca, which plays in the Ascenso MX league, ultimately deemed both brothers worthy in 2017, when Yousuf was 17 and Yohan 16. However, neither could legally sign a contract at the time.

"There was a lot of paperwork to get us registered in the league," Yousuf said. "We were both minors and we didn't have a Mexican passport, so it was very complicated."

 Faced with an uncertain future in Oaxaca, they nevertheless decided to stick around rather than return to Michigan, with both eventually completing their high school curriculum online.

"At first I missed my family and friends," said Yohan, 18. "But I thought of my main goal, and I forgot about that and focused on soccer."

Their persistence paid off when both signed their first pro contracts with Alebrijes for the current Clausura 2019 season in early February.

The Zetuna family settled in Michigan in 2009 after fleeing Iraq as religious refugees.
The Zetuna family settled in Michigan in 2009 after fleeing the Iraq War as refugees.

"When I first met them, the first thing I noticed was their amazing mentality," Oaxaca manager Alex Diego said. "They never stop working. If I tell them to go and run 200 laps, they will do it. No questions asked."

Though Diego made a point to highlight the brothers' mentality and willingness to put in work, he assured there is a reason why the club has committed to them as players.

"They're still developing as players, but I see them playing top-division soccer very soon," he said. "They're both really good, and as a manager you want to have players with a mix of talent and attitude."

The Oaxaca organization appears to be placing an emphasis on youth. Diego, a former defender in Mexico's top division for Pumas, is 33. Team president Santiago San Roman is only 28. Eight of the club's first-team players are 20 or younger.

So far, the formula has been a winner. Oaxaca sits in fourth place in the second division, just three points behind league-leading Atletico San Luis.

"We have ambition," Diego said. "This is a great city where people are increasingly connected to the local team. We want to be in the top division, we want our stadium to be full for every home game."

The Zetunas have bought in to the team's philosophy, praising Diego and the organization at every turn.

"It's a true blessing that we got to sign our contracts with Alex because he's a coach, a father figure and a friend at the same time," Yohan said. "And when we train, [San Roman] is always there, he's motivating us and you can tell he has our back."

Meanwhile, the brothers are staying behind in Oaxaca this weekend to train while the Alebrijes face Dorados de Sinaloa and the legendary Maradona. Manager Diego insists the club wants to be patient and not rush the brothers' development. Given what they have overcome in the last decade, it shouldn't be too long before they take the next step.

"My dream has always been to play top soccer," Yousuf said. "This year, I want to debut and then play in the first division in Mexico. My ultimate goal is to play in Europe.

"We're really focused on making it. We've wanted to do this our whole lives, since we were playing on the streets in Iraq."

That's a long way from Oaxaca's historic architecture, something that's not lost on Yohan.

"Yeah, I'm really happy about all the people that have had confidence in us. If I make it, I'm never going to forget this club."

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