Sports can build bridges, function as a universal language, and yes, even help two teenage boys who, all by themselves, immigrated to the United States from West Africa, and embraced their new home even though they didn’t speak English.
Today, you might find Mohammed and Rahim Diallo walking the streets of New York City in a business suit or with cases of their beverage product in hand. As the founders of Harlem-based GinJan Bros., which makes an organic and non-GMO version of a traditional African ginger drink, they’re entrepreneurs with a backstory that could break your heart, but then lift your spirits.
Mohammed, 33, came to the U.S. at 13 years old. He was on vacation initially, but an unstable political climate in Guinea changed his life trajectory.
“My father was involved in politics, and he was somewhat at risk back at home,” Mohammed said. “I was in the U.S. already, and one of my father’s friends had a sister in Atlanta, and she agreed to take me in.”
Four years later, Rahim, 31, came to America at 15 years old to see his brother graduate. The original plan was for Rahim to return to Guinea and, after high school, move to the U.S. for college. However, like his brother, he moved into the country as a young teen.
“I just felt it would be more beneficial for me to stay in the U.S. and be educated here. And, my father agreed,” Rahim said.
If only it were that easy. Upon first arriving in America, Mohammed and Rahim endured abuse, time in a juvenile detention facility, sleepless nights on cold floors and a learning curve so steep, most others would have high-tailed it back to their home country.
Instead, they found their place, pursued their dreams and sought out connections, with sports and fitness playing an instrumental role in their young lives.
“I was a 13-year-old kid who didn’t speak the language and everything was foreign. I didn’t know up from down or left from right, but the one thing I had was sports,” Mohammed said. “Because of sports, I always had friends, and I always had people around me.”
The Drive to Make It
Mohammed and Rahim were extremely active boys in Guinea.
“When there was no school, we would get up in the morning and run around the neighborhood,” Mohammed said. “Soccer was the most popular sport, so we would play from the moment we woke up until lunch. We’d take a little break, and then head back out to play again.”
In fact, Mohammed developed into an immensely talented soccer player. Once he arrived in Atlanta, he played for his high school team, but that was short-lived due to an unstable living environment.
“The woman I lived with thought my family was wealthy, and thought she would gain from me, financially,” he said. “That wasn’t the case. I’m guessing she was going though a lot of hardship, and I took on the bulk of her stress.”
Mohammed had to quit soccer during his junior year because he could not get rides home after practice, and the hour-long walks back to the house were becoming too much.
By the time he was 16, he was kicked out of the house. His father made other arrangements for him to stay with a friend in New York City, but that proved to be a harsh living situation as well.
“I cannot believe I emerged from that okay,” Mohammed said. “My father told me someone agreed to take me in temporarily, but when I got there, I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. I was given a blanket and told I could sleep on the floor in the corner of the living room. The host would go to work, come back, and never even ask if I ate anything. It was really rough at first in New York City.”
Eventually, he was taken in by a welcoming family in New Hampshire, where he played soccer and basketball, and ran track while finishing his high school degree.
“My dream, for the longest time, was to become a professional soccer player. So, I was looking at schools like UConn and UMass for college.”
Even though Mohammed had the talent to receive a full-ride scholarship, the opportunity was out of reach because of his circumstances.
“Back then, Penn State University had an amazing soccer program, so I went to a try-out there, and I did extremely well,” he said. “The coach really liked me, and we went back to his office to start filling out the application so he could sign me, but he learned I wasn’t a U.S. citizen and I didn’t have my green card. Of course, that meant I couldn’t get a full scholarship, and I certainly couldn’t afford to pay an international tuition. So, that was it.”
He went on to attend a community college, where he played soccer and worked full-time. Due to a loaded schedule, however, he had to miss many practices. So, he quit his school’s team and played in a league on the weekends.
“Some people I played with went on to play in the MLS. Others, they were amazing players, but they just didn’t know the right people. They didn’t have the right connections,” Mohammed explained. “So, because most MLS teams only draft from Division I schools, it really limits the talent pool in the United States because not everyone can afford to go to a Division I school. I was one of those people, and that’s why I never made it to the professional level.”
Because Mohammed transferred schools, and alternated taking classes for a semester with working for a semester, it took him eight years to earn his degree in finance from Mercy College in New York before landing a job as a financial advisor in the Big Apple.
A Cold Welcome to the U.S.
Meanwhile, Rahim’s arrival in the U.S. coincided with 9/11.
“It was hard here for anyone affiliated with anything Muslim,” Rahim said.
So, he took a bus north, with the intention of moving to Canada, but got stopped in Vermont. That led to spending 11 months in a juvenile detention center in Pennsylvania.
“Sports were really a way for me to get out of just sitting around all day, being locked up,” he said. “Some of the guards liked soccer, some of the guards liked football, so if they would want to play, I would volunteer because it got me out of the place.”
Rahim, who was severely overweight as a child, also made a lifestyle change at that point in his life.
“I said, ‘I’m tired of being a big kid,’ so I made it my mission to lose weight,” Rahim explained. “I put myself on a diet, which was a normal breakfast and lunch, and then I would only have salad for dinner. I would not eat cake, no matter what, not even on my birthday. I worked out every day on the treadmill if I couldn’t go outside. The first time I ran on it, I lasted about five minutes. By the end of the 11 months, I could go for an hour or longer without a problem.”
Nearly a year later and 70 pounds lighter, he was taken in by a wonderful foster family in Michigan, where he earned his high school degree and ran cross country in addition to playing intramural sports.
“In Michigan, being involved in sports, I made a lot of friends that way,” Rahim said. “Sports are such a big part of American culture. You learn a lot of things about America just by being involved.”
He went on to attend Michigan State, where he wanted to walk-on to the football team, but after a year of two-a-day practices, a full course load and trying to work full-time, football was the first to be eliminated. After completing his undergraduate degree in biomaterials engineering, he attended graduate school in Germany and France for two years.
Upon returning to New York, Rahim looked for jobs in investment banking and materials engineering, but couldn’t find anything, so he worked full-time in the service industry. And, that helped jumpstart the brothers’ childhood dream.
A Drink that Fits Their Lifestyle
Together in the same city, Mohammed and Rahim decided to take a chance and start their own business.
They launched GinJan Bros. in 2012 because they realized “no one had ever taken advantage of this great ginger drink,” according to Rahim.
A lot of African restaurants in the U.S. carried a version of it, but the two brothers decided they could make it and market it so it would be more appealing to a broader population.
“During our research into the beverage industry, we realized there was a shift toward healthier, organic, cold-pressed beverages; the so-called ‘better for you’ category. Perfect timing for us, since Ginjan has all those attributes,” Rahim said.
The juice certainly fits their active lifestyle. They drink it when playing rec-league soccer, basketball or hitting the gym nearly every day of the week.
“It’s great pre-workout and post-workout fuel. It fires me up,” Mohammed said. “Ginger increases blood flow, aids digestion and also works as an anti-inflammatory.”
It’s fitting. In some ways, their beverage helps power them as athletes, which in turn, helps power their business.
“Staying active helps me feel better,” Rahim said. “It’s really hard running a startup because it’s impossible to turn your mind off. There’s always something to think about and always more work to do. Going to the gym or going for a run, that’s the one thing I can do to totally disconnect.”
Not only that, but the lessons they’ve learned in sports help fuel GinJan Bros, too.
“In sports, you have to keep training and working on your weaknesses,” Mohammed said. “I’m always looking at what’s working and what’s not working with our products so we can improve.”
And maybe that drive for betterment is their secret ingredient. Think about it. Now U.S. citizens, these two brothers, who had the odds stacked against them, fully immersed themselves in American life, willing to “learn how to learn.”
They took risks, adapted to change, embraced strangers and a new language, and trusted their abilities enough to know that they’d be okay.
“My father always taught us that for every problem, there is a solution,” Mohammed said.
And that is a lesson that transcends borders and language barriers.