Raffe Paulis: Tales of an Inner City Chicago Kid


Oh, Chicago. Most people just see the skyline and say, “WOW, that’s a pretty city.” For me, it is way more than just a pretty skyline.

My family is from Baghdad, Iraq, and my parents immigrated here before I was born. We spoke exclusively Arabic at home; I slowly learned English in elementary school by talking to the other kids. I remember walking into kindergarten at five years old, not knowing how to speak English, and crying to my mom so she would stay with me.

I grew up on the north side of Chicago (on Kimball St. and Peterson St.), a diverse but scary place to live in the 90s. My high school had metal detectors, daily fights, gang members, and drugs throughout the school. My environment influenced the man I was becoming. I once threw an encyclopedia at a kid’s face because he ratted me out while I was trying to sneak in class late.

Playing basketball after school was my favorite escape, even though I’d get in physical altercations weekly at the park. Trouble always found me, or I found it. After being cuffed and escorted home by the police on back-to-back weekends for stealing and setting off fireworks near/at people, my dad finally asked, “Is this how your life is going to go?”

In my junior year, my buddy Evan said, “Hey! Let’s go to volleyball tryouts today.”

I replied maturely, “I’m not playing that girlie sport.”

He promised if I didn’t like it, I would never have to do it again. Turns out, I loved it. I returned over and over and over again. I couldn’t get enough. It took over my world and was my new getaway from everything. I was my happiest and best while playing. I was truly addicted.

On July 4th the next summer, my friends and I were setting off fireworks at Evanston beach at midnight. My group of friends was a mix of gang bangers and childhood friends. I was accustomed to rival gangs pulling out a gun and making me throw down whatever gang they weren’t in, but this night was different.

While at the beach, my friends got into an altercation with a rival gang at 1 am. While we walked back to the car, a black suburban crept slowly toward us and opened fire. We scattered like flies.

I climbed a barbed wire fence and helped two of my buddies over. My hand was flowing with blood. We ended up in the backyard of someone’s house with police holding a gun to my friend’s face telling us not to move. We nervously said to them that we were getting shot at, not the ones doing the shooting. It’s still a blur, but we made it out alive and out of cuffs.

When I returned home, I took a long look at my life. I resolved to be done with that stuff, to chase something different. I dove even deeper into volleyball and barely did anything else. My whole world became volleyball, including my friend group. I chose not to hang out with my non-volleyball friends because it was too dark for me.

So, when people ask why I play volleyball – why I’m still going after it when the money is hard to come by – well, it goes a little further than the money for me. Who knows where I would be without it?

Category: Athlete Stories, From Our Beach

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