Out of Africa, unlikely winners

Posted: October 30, 2011

With his leg sunken in a whirlpool in the training room, Melvin Snoh was getting the kind of treatment on his bruised heel that professional and college athletes enjoy.

An athletic trainer then meticulously taped his foot and ankle before Malvern Prep's soccer game against visiting Central Bucks South, played under the lights at the pristine Pellegrini Sports Complex, the newest jewel on the school's sprawling campus.

An hour earlier, 25 miles away in Wyndmoor, Dad Poquie readied for football practice on one of La Salle's many grass fields, playing for one of the top high school programs in the state. That he is a starter is astounding considering he adopted the sport just two years ago.

What's more astounding is that Poquie and Snoh, complete strangers, are here at all. Even more unlikely was that the two boys - whose families fled the West African nation of Liberia amid civil war and landed in Philadelphia within a year of each other - would cultivate, on opulent prep-school campuses far from home, rich futures against adverse odds.

Snoh, one of nine children born in Sinoe, Liberia, never knew his parents, Joseph and Rebecca, who died in 1995 from illnesses that not even his eldest sister, Joanna Snoh, 37, can recall.

"In the war, with people running for their lives," Joanna Snoh said, "you can't get any medical needs."

When Poquie's mother, Mary Nyeayea, led her four children from Nimba, Liberia, on a daylong hike - on back roads to avoid rebels manning the main thoroughfares - to Ivory Coast, his father, Martin, did not flee with them. In the winter of 1999, the family, with Poquie a 4-year-old, landed in Staten Island, N.Y. They moved to Philadelphia in 2001.

With his parents gone, an infant Melvin Snoh and seven siblings were sent to a refugee camp in Ghana, living there in poor conditions for three years.

"There is no food, no water, they are filthy," said Joanna Snoh, who had come to United States as a teenager and was not with her siblings then.

It was there, however, that Melvin Snoh touched his first soccer ball.

"From what I can recall, I've been playing my whole life," he said.

In 2000, Joanna Snoh brought her family to America with the aid of a refugee program. Melvin was 5.

As children, Poquie and Snoh attended public schools - Poquie in Southwest Philadelphia and Snoh in Coatesville.

Poquie transferred to Young Scholars Charter in North Philadelphia as a sixth grader. His mother hoped to free him from underachieving neighborhood schools. (Poquie's mother was unavailable to be interviewed for this article.) There he met Kevin Dougherty, a computer teacher and, later, the dean of students.

Dougherty, 30, a La Salle alumnus and current director of admissions there, became Poquie's mentor.

"He's been my father figure," Poquie said. "I didn't have anybody else."

Dougherty helped Poquie find La Salle, where he began high school on an academic scholarship.

Melvin Snoh found opportunity through soccer. As a fifth grader at Caln Elementary, he joined Spirit United, a soccer club in Downingtown.

Joanna Snoh saw soccer as a distraction from school and an extra expense for a family she struggled to support.

"I wanted to put food and clothing on their backs. Those were my priorities," said Joanna Snoh, who juggled work and nursing school.

Melvin Snoh persisted. He relied on rides to practices and games from teammates. The father of a Spirit teammate suggested that Joanna Snoh consider Malvern Prep for Melvin's education. He was accepted, with a scholarship, in sixth grade.

The transitions were difficult. Melvin Snoh lived with a Malvern family (going home to Coatesville on weekends) for more than a year to assimilate to his new surroundings and increased workload.

Along with the academic rigors and social challenges, Poquie faced an arduous commute, taking three modes of transportation - the No. 36 trolley, the Broad Street subway, and a school bus - to get to La Salle daily.

"That's the one issue that a lot of students from the city face," Dougherty said, "Coming to these private and independent schools . . . they're not sure if they belong because they don't have all the material things that other students have."

"Another issue was friends," Poquie said. "Each of them come from different backgrounds and different personalities, so I had to weed out."

When Poquie tires, he thinks of one person.

"My mother . . . she's my motivation," he said. "She wakes up at 6 a.m. and doesn't come home until 11 p.m. If she can do it, so can I."

But at La Salle, Poquie found football.

"It was a bit comical," Explorers coach Drew Gordon said. "He didn't know what he was doing."

Gordon moved him along slowly. Poquie participated in summer camps and lifted weights. As a sophomore, he played cornerback and special teams for the junior varsity. He voluntarily watched game film with Gordon each Monday.

"What I like about him is that he's accountable for everything," Gordon said.

As a junior, Poquie made the varsity. At 14, he didn't know the sport. Now, he is a starting cornerback for a program that has played in the last two PIAA Class AAAA state finals.

Poquie, 16, hopes to go to college in the South, somewhere he's never been. He hopes to play at the next level.

"I've grown up being tough, just hanging in there," said the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Poquie. "Football resembles the same lifestyle. . . . I fell in love with it because of its toughness."

Meanwhile, Snoh, 17, a midfielder, became one of the finest players in the state, displaying ingenuity with the ball rarely seen in high school. He has been recruited by at least 14 Division I schools, said Malvern coach Leighton Walters, and is leaning toward Georgetown.

Walters, formerly of Penn Charter, likens the 5-7, 150-pound senior to Bobby Convey, the former Quakers standout who played with the U.S. national team at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Snoh's nine goals in 16 games have Malvern on the verge of an Inter-Ac League title. He most enjoys orchestrating the attack.

"Just the free will to be creative," he said. "Go out and express yourself."

He participates in the Philadelphia Union under-18 academy, occasionally playing with the MLS club's reserve team.

Snoh, like Poquie, has never returned to Liberia. Joanna Snoh and some other siblings returned last summer while Melvin remained home to continue his soccer schedule. He doesn't think about Liberia, or how he landed here.

"I'm sure when I'm older I will," he said, "but now, as a high schooler, no."

Joanna Snoh believes the thought is difficult for her younger brother.

"He asks little questions about it, but sometimes when it's brought up - he won't say it - but I think he's dreading it, to hear that part of it," she said.

Soccer has always been the easy part.

"A number of kids would have drowned because of the experience, the culture," Walters, who emigrated from Jamaica in 1989, said of Snoh's transition to Malvern. "There are a lot of rich kids here. He adjusted well. He's a survivor."

Contact Evan Burgos at rallysports@phillynews.com.

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