He was starring in his own movie now, and it was even better than those wild, bigger-than-life adventures that had introduced him to America when he was growing up in a poor and crowded refugee enclave in northern Mozambique.
His family had fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo and eventually ended up in the massive Maratane Camp. That’s where Bibebibyo “Bibe” Seko was born and lived the first 14 years of his life.
Although he said his family dreamed of one day coming to America, he really didn’t know much about it except for what he gleaned from snippets of popular culture.
“I knew some artists and singers and songwriters, people like Jay-Z and Beyonce and Rihanna and Michael Jackson,” Bibe said. “And sometimes I saw some movies at my friend’s place.”
He thought back to those days and smiled:
“I remember ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Big Momma’s House.’ And … aaah … there was a Christmas movie, too. About a little guy who got left from a trip.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “Home Alone.”
Tuesday night, Bibe was not alone in the Belmont High gymnasium, which was crowded and hot and yet had a commencement ceremony audience that was full of support and embrace and especially cheers.
The focus was a makeshift stage set up at one end of the basketball floor, directly beneath a backdrop that included the Bison’s scoreboard, an American flag on the wall and the banners of the seven Dayton City League schools.
Of the 160 graduates, Bibe was one of a select group of eight that was called forward first. They were the class’ National Honor Society members, students who not only had maintained at least a 3.0 grade point average but had distinguished themselves in areas of leadership, service and character.
Bibe had also been a standout on the soccer field. Thanks to Belmont’s English as a Second Language curriculum, the school draws many immigrant students like Bibe, some of whom have helped the Bison field a hardscrabble but talented soccer team.
To make such an impact at Belmont, Bibe had to overcome far more obstacles and odds than Macaulay Culkin did when he played Kevin, the young boy left to fend for himself in his Chicago home on Christmas Eve against two bumbling burglars.
The Maratane Camp — which had over 5,000 people crammed into it by the time Bibe turned 7 — suffered from constant food shortages, substandard living conditions and dysfunctional health and educational systems.
When he and his family finally came to America, they lived the first six months in Austin, Texas and then moved to Dayton, thanks in part to the efforts of the Catholic Social Services Resettlement Program.
Assigned to Belmont High, Bibe took his education seriously.
“When I came here one of my goals was to do good in school. That motivated me the most,” he said, smacking his fist in his palm for emphasis.
“In the very beginning I didn’t play sports so I could start doing everything good in my classes. I studied. I stayed after school to work more. I wanted to make it.”
And, mind you, he was doing all this in what was not even his second language, but more like his fourth.
While his family spoke a dialect of Swahili and Portuguese that had been the most widely spoken language in Mozambique, Bibe also spoke some Spanish and first started English when he got to Texas.
“At first my tongue was very hard to say the words in English,” he said. “I could understand it, but not really speak it.
“But then you go to school every day and talk to other kids and see TV and at some point you just get it and you’re surprised how you learned. A couple of years ago I couldn’t even say ‘hello’ or something like that, and now it’s simple.”
Even so, just getting to school never was easy. After the family first lived on Neal Avenue, his parents — both of whom work factory jobs now, he said — were able to buy a modest home in the Hillcrest area. Bibe rode the RTA’s No. 7 bus every day to and from Belmont, a trip that took 45 minutes each way
After going through all that in his three years here, he admitted to having mixed feelings about leaving the school.
“I’m sad because I’m going to miss Belmont,” he said as we sat outside his house and talked the day before his graduation. “It was a good place for me. It’s like my second home.
“But I’m excited, too, because I’m the first in my family to actually graduate from high school.”
His parents — Mbuto and Sela — would share that excitement the next evening.
Both were all dressed up — Mbuto in a white jacket with black trim, Sela in a colorful full-length dress with matching handbag and stunning necklace — and looked on joyously as Bibe made his way across the stage for his diploma.
Sela never was formally schooled, Bibe said, and she seemed especially pleased by her son’s accomplishment.
Bibe was heartily cheered by six of his soccer teammates — five immigrants from Africa and Iraq and one from Puerto Rico — who were graduating with him. A couple held up phones and took videos of their celebrated fellow Bison.
Bibe said he and two other players — Bruce Anthony and Bungire “Kashu” Opothi — have an offer to play next season at Wilmington College, provided they can obtain the necessary ACT scores and meet some of the financial obligations .
“I’ve got a (partial) academic scholarship to Wittenberg, too, but my parents can’t afford to pay for the rest of it,” he said. “So I’m hoping for Wilmington to work out.
“I want to keep going to school and continue my education. That’s what my father has always stressed: education is the key. And it’s worked out for me so far.”
So this is the American Dream?
He smiled as he pondered the oft-used concept, but then shrugged and said quietly:
“That’s the goal for our families when we come here. You work hard to make sure your kids get a better education, a better opportunity than they would have had before … So, yeah, dreams can come true.”
Finding a home
From 1996 to 2003, the Democratic Republic of Congo — which previously had been known as the Belgian Congo and Zaire — was decimated by two wars.
The Second Congo War lasted five years, involved nine nations and killed an estimated 5.4 million people, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Bibe’s family fled the South Kivu Province and went first to Tanzania, then Mozambique. The Maratane Camp was run by the UN Refugee Agency, but the place was plagued by inadequate housing and services.
Bibe said they lived in “a real bad house” made of clay and mud with a tarp roof that still let in the rain.
“It was hard,” he said. “And when all my older sisters lived with us (three are married now and live elsewhere in the U.S.), it was really crowded.”
It was at Maratane, though, where he first learned to play soccer.
“When I was 4 or 5, I used to go play with the big boys,” he grinned. “They used to tell me, ‘You’re so small, you can’t play.’ But I was quick and I did OK.”
It’s a script that later played out the same way for him in high school.
When the family moved to Austin, he entered International High School as a ninth-grader.
After six months, he said the family relocated to Dayton because his parents could find jobs and the cost of living wasn’t as much.
Bibe joined the soccer team that was then coached by Julie Raiff, a former University of Dayton soccer player, who guided her players with a mix of love, protectiveness and high expectation.
On the team, Bibe found several players with stories similar to his. Some had even more challenging pasts, including a couple of those who graduated with him Tuesday night.
Nyaz Ibrahim’s family fled Iraq after his beloved 21-year-old brother Azad, who had been an interpreter for the U.S. Army, was killed along with five American soldiers when their Humvee hit an IED near Fallujah in 2007.
ISIS soldiers soon threatened Nyaz’s family — his father was briefly kidnapped — and the Ibrahims were forced to leave everything and flee to Turkey before eventually making it to the America.
Ameer Al Zehhawi fled Baghdad, Iraq, as well, and Osama Abusim lived in Benghazi, Libya, until war sent his family to refugee camps in Sudan and Egypt.
Bruce Anthony’s family is Sudanese, but he was born and raised 11 years in a camp in Ghana.
Bungire Opothi was a little boy in Ethiopia in 2003 when he said government troops instigated a massacre on his Awuk tribe, killing mostly men and boys. His family escaped to camps in Sudan and Uganda before coming to Dayton.
Thanks to Raiff’s efforts, the community began to learn about her resilient players — they came from 18 nations and four continents — and many people embraced them.
The Centerville High soccer team bonded with them. The organizers of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation invited some of the players, including Bibe, to their $5,000-a-plate awards gala and found patrons who bought them new suits, shoes and all the accessories.
People sent donations to help the effort, and a couple area club programs — including the Ohio Galaxies team that plays at the Athletes in Action field in Xenia and especially embraced Bibe — provided them opportunities to play, travel and showcase their talent.
Bibe has never failed to show his gratitude.
He did it in words when we spoke, thanking everyone from the Ohio Galaxies’ coaches and his teammates’ parents who drove him to practices and games to his Belmont teachers, assistant Bison coach Ramadhan Ndayisaba and especially Raiff, his former coach.
And since coming to Belmont, he’s done it in deed, too. That’s where his studies came in again.
The best way to show his appreciation was to make the most of his opportunity. He earned a 4.0 GPA in one grading period, a 3.8 in another.
“I feel like Dayton is my home now,” he said. “It’s a friendly city where immigrants are welcomed. And I see myself staying here after college so I can do good.”
‘Make the world a better place’
When the commencement ceremony ended Tuesday, the new Belmont grads all tossed their mortarboard caps into the air in celebration as the crowd cheered.
Once back outside, Bibe was met by his parents, his sisters, Fatuma and Eva, and a cousin, Ramazani. Some of his soccer teammates sought him out for a final goodbye, and friends and family took more photos and videos of them.
Raiff was waiting out there, too. She had cards for each of the players and took photos with her phone.
When Fatuma and Eva hung back as she focused on Bibe, she looked up and waved them in closer to their brother.
“Everybody get in,” she coaxed “It does take a village.”
As Bibe stood there — wearing a white National Honor Society stole atop his gown, three academic honor cords draped around his neck and with a couple of bouquets of flowers and his diploma in his hands — Mbuto beamed:
“I’m very proud of him. He’s my only son. And now he’s our graduate.”
Off to the side, Raiff watched the family dynamic in front of her, and the emotion began to wash over her.
“What a great kid,” she said. “He’s very proud of his heritage and his accomplishments, but not in a conceited way. He’s just a sweet, humble young man.
“All the players here today, they’re just neat, neat kids. Some of them are really lucky they got here. I’m just so proud of them.”
As she turned to leave — her tears now spilling onto her cheeks — she looked back in Bibe’s direction and said softly:
“Take care, Bibe. Make the world a better place.”