The language of Kotokoli has no word for the sport squash. Moubarak Ouro-Aguy learned it when he came to New Haven—and learned it well.
In just two years, Ouro-Aguy has already become a nationally ranked squash player. Under the guidance and trust of Squash Haven, a not-for-profit squash and academic mentoring program for New Haven kids, Ouro-Aguy, one of the some 70 team members, now calls the squash courts at the Yale Payne Whitney Gym, a second home.
Life in Togo, Africa, where he spoke Kotokoli, was all Ouro-Aguy ever knew for his first seven years. Then Ouro-Aguy, his two sisters, brother, and father, fled Togo in search of a better life. “My uncle came to New Haven before us because of the better opportunities he could have here. Even if you had a good education, it was difficult to have a good job and support a big family.” IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services), a not-for-profit organization in New Haven, “has helped our family a lot. They found us a home, school, and helped us with food and clothing.”
His mother still remains in Togo. “We talk to her over the phone, but it’s not the same as seeing her. I miss her a lot.” It’s been four years since Ouro-Aguy and siblings have seen their mother; they dream of her joining them in New Haven someday. His father recently had back surgery, and lost his job working at a gas station, but “he’s feeling better and looking for a new job”.
After already being in New Haven for nearly two years, Ouro-Aguy joined Squash Haven in sixth grade. His tryout was not standard compared to the rest of the team. The program had accepted a classmate. While Christi Boscarino Elligers, the squash program’s academic and community service director, was at East Rock Magnet School, a teacher approached her and “told us about how worthwhile it would be to have Moubarak in the program. I interviewed him on the spot and immediately noticed his self-motivation and intellectual curiosity.” His younger brother and one of his older sisters are also now in the program and are reaping the benefits of their individual hard work and dedication to academics, squash, and the community.
Ouro-Aguy’s has not only proved his aspiration to excel academically, but has consistently worked hard to excel in squash as well. His desire to learn both on and off the court is Ouro-Aguy’s key to success in his new world. Through Squash Haven’s academic program, “I get all As. They’ve also taught me how to be a better person and give me advice on how to deal with certain situations. Sometimes, even I forget how new everything still is to me.”
The U.S. Squash Organization ranks players within within age divisions. (Ouro-Aguy plays in the boys under 15 division because he is 14 years old.) The ranking changes every time a player participates in a U.S. Squash sanctioned tournament. Ouro-Aguy is currently ranked 150 in the country.
He plays squash three to four times a week, as well as frequent weekend excursions for tournaments located all over New England.
Ouro-Aguy is a calm player, even in the most pressure-filled moments of the game. Unlike many young squash players, who seem to get discouraged and frustrated by mistakes, Ouro-Aguy is constantly thinking ahead to the next point.
“After a long day at school, I love coming to the squash courts and playing with my friends,” he said. “During an intense game, I try to focus on what I’ve learned and am working on in Squash Haven to play my best. There’s nothing better than bringing home a trophy.”
John DeWitt, Squash Haven’s director of squash and volunteers, is working hard with Ouro-Aguy on all aspects of his squash game. “Moubarak sets a great example for his teammates every day. He is engaged, well-behaved, and focused,” DeWitt said. “Although Moubarak is more of a silent leader, the focus that he brings to squash practice certainly helps to raise the expectations of his peers. We set high standards for him, and he always exceeds them. This kind of drive is what makes Moubarak so talented.”
Now an eighth grader, Ouro-Aguy is thinking about leaving home once again to attend boarding school. Wherever Ouro-Aguy finds himself in the coming years, it is certain that he will always find home within the four walls of the squash court, with the Squash Haven family cheering him on in the stands.
Ariela Martin is a student at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School.