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Fargo Shanley-Oak Grove soccer player Yohanis Lulu is an international student from Ethiopia and plays soccer with a prosthetic leg. 

Forum News Service

FARGO -- Anyone who learned how Yohanis Lulu grew up as a neglected, abused and abandoned boy in Ethiopia wouldn't blame him if he was bitter. However, anyone who meets Lulu quickly comes to the conclusion that is not the case.

At a young age, Lulu broke his leg twice and was forced to live with a handicap which was failing to heal properly. Losing full use of his leg was just one of a series of misfortunes that dominated Lulu's childhood, but it's one he ultimately overcame despite his right lower leg needing to be amputated at the age of 13.

In 2014, Lulu, 18, was granted a student visa to receive education and medical care in the United States which changed his life from the one he led in Ethiopia.

Lulu now lives in Moorhead under the legal guardianship of Nick and Ann Tunheim. He is a sophomore at Fargo Oak Grove High School and for the past two seasons, Lulu has competed on the Fargo Shanley-Oak Grove junior varsity boys soccer team with the use of a prosthetic leg.

"I love to play soccer," said Lulu, who has learned to play very effectively with the prosthetic provided by the Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis.

It's possible to think the sport of soccer would be challenging for someone with one leg, but anytime Lulu steps onto the field, he proves he can compete as well as any other player.

"When it comes to Yohanis playing the game of soccer itself, you think that's a brave move," Fargo Shanley activities director Michael Breker said.

Breker first met Lulu last fall when he coached the Shanley-Oak Grove co-op team.

"He could have done something like archery or a sport where you primarily only need to use your upper body, but to play a game where you are exclusively using your legs, to me that's brave and it speaks to a lot to his character."

A tough start 

Lulu was born in Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa. When he was young, he and a friend hiked up a nearby mountain to play. That's where Lulu broke his leg.

The leg was reset by a doctor, but his family was warned to watch him carefully so he didn't break it again. A short time later, Lulu fell while playing at home and broke the leg in the same spot.

Further medical care couldn't be afforded so for more than 10 years, Lulu was forced to cope with an open fracture in his lower right tibia. Lulu persevered, but unfortunately his life got worse before it got better.

Lulu's father was abusive and Ann Tunheim said Lulu's mother abandoned Lulu and his infant brother to escape the abuse. Shortly after his mother left, Yohanis discovered his brother had died due to malnutrition.

Lulu said at the age of five, he ran away from his father and sought refuge with other family members and by the age of seven, he found himself living on the streets.

An answered prayer

At the age of 10, Lulu went to live in an orphanage in the city of Sululta.

A surgery attempting to refuse his tibia was performed by a United States physician while living at the orphanage. But after a six-month casting process failed, his lower right leg was amputated.

Lulu could have lost hope after another setback, but he one day dreamed about coming to America.

"I told my friend (at the orphanage) 'I'm going to America,'" Lulu said. "Nobody had told me and God had not spoke to me, but I will go."

Lulu also was hopeful one day he would find a new family.

"I needed a family to love me," Lulu said. "I prayed all the time for a family to care for me who is hugging me all the time."

In 2013, Nick and Ann Tunheim visited Ethiopia on a mission trip and visited Lulu's orphanage.

"I had this immediate connection with him," Ann Tunheim said. "He was this amazing kid and I thought I wanted to do something to help him. We were struck by his story and his joy. For somebody who could have such a negative outlook on life, he chooses to see the good."

Nick and Ann have son Kaleb and daughter Halle, and have an adopted daughter Malia, who is also from Ethiopia.

The Tunheims kept in touch with Lulu via Facebook before he arrived in America in 2014. Lulu is still in the process of obtaining his green card to complete his immigration to the United States.

Succeeding at soccer

Lulu wanted to participate in activities and he chose soccer.

Lulu said learning to play with a prosthetic was challenging and at first he needed to master running -- something only years prior would have seemed unlikely.

"From Day 1 he has been a kid that walks up to you, shakes your hand, and says thank you for everything you do for him," Breker said. "He is grateful for every opportunity you give him."

Last fall, Lulu played with the prosthetic he had while living in Ethiopia and it fell off several times during games -- an occurrence he said startled opponents.

This fall, Lulu is playing with a new leg that features designs of several stained-glass crosses -- a constant reminder of his deep faith. In many ways, it is also a reminder of how far he has come in life.

The boy that once played the sport using a stick to maintain balance now was running and competing at full speed.

"I'm running very fast," Lulu said. "I think my leg is not fake and it is like a real leg."

Current Shanley-Oak Grove head coach Ryan Christianson said he has been impressed with the way Lulu carries himself on the field.

"He is always laughing and smiling," Christianson said. "Once he gets on the field you can't even tell he has a prosthetic leg. I think he deals with it just fine. Everyone gets along with him and I think the players respect the fact that he is playing soccer with one leg. That is a pretty talented thing to do."

Lulu scored a goal in a game this fall. He said he has never felt happier playing soccer after scoring that goal.

"I play very hard and I want to score goals," Lulu said. "I'm so excited and so happy after scoring a goal."