If you had told Mustafa Khaleefah a decade ago that he would be getting a college scholarship to play American football, the 6-foot-6 Michigan State offensive tackle commit might have asked, “What’s American football?”
Growing up in Baghdad, the war-torn capital of Iraq, Khaleefah’s favorite sport was soccer, and he didn’t have any exposure to football as a child. He and his family left Iraq when he was in the fourth grade and took a circuitous route to America. The first time he put on pads and walked on to the gridiron was in high school.
Now a senior at Dearborn (Mich.) High School, Khaleefah has gone from dreams of escaping violence to dreams of playing in the NFL. He spoke with Land of 10 about his journey, and what it means to be in the position he’s in.
Q: Do you remember any times of peace or was it always pretty war-torn while you were there?
Khaleefah: “It was pretty war-torn. There were some good moments, but it didn’t last for a long time. I’m just glad me and my family made it out of there.”
Q: What was the living situation like? Were you with a big extended family?
Khaleefah: “We had a really big house, so we lived with everybody there. My grandpa, every morning he’d take me out to eat. I always looked at him as an older version of me, so that’s why me and him connected so well. He was such a great guy.”
Q: Did he come to the United States with you guys when you left?
Khaleefah: “No. Him and my grandma stayed. It was just me and my family, and he visited from time to time when he could (until his death a few years ago).”
Q: In the midst of the war and the violence, what were some of the good memories you have of your childhood in Iraq that have stuck with you over the years?
Khaleefah: “What comes to mind is my cousins were always with us. They also lived in the same household, so that was always good. We always hung out with them. We had a good time with them. I remember getting my first PS2. I remember that. I always played that a lot back then. My grandpa always used to take me out to eat in the morning, so I remember that, too.”
Q: What were your hobbies and interests growing up?
Khaleefah: “I didn’t really play much of sports back then, organized sports, but we (he and friends from school) would go to the park and play some soccer. That was something we’d do. That was about it, really.”
Q: Were you big into watching soccer on TV growing up as well?
Khaleefah: “Yeah, me and my dad were huge fans of it. We still are. I watch it here and there too.”
Q: What are some of your favorite teams?
Khaleefah: “Manchester United is my favorite team. International, I don’t really have a favorite team unless Iraq’s playing, but I’ll root for Brazil here and there.”
Q: Were there some players that you grew up idolizing a bit?
Khaleefah: “Ronaldinho. He was one of the best players to play, so I loved him. He was great.”
Q: Considering the turbulence within Iraq, and especially in Baghdad, what are some of the bad memories that have stuck with you?
Khaleefah: “I always remember the guy who got shot right in front of our house and my dad telling us that he had to clean off the driveway because there was so much blood on it. I remember tanks driving in the street and stopping, a bunch of soldiers coming out and searching our house. It’s stuff like that you remember.”
Q: What would they be searching your house for?
Khaleefah: “I don’t know. Guns and all that other stuff, probably.”
Q: Did you ever lose anyone close to you in the violence, or did your family stay safe?
Khaleefah: “We lost my uncle. He was a doctor. He was walking out of his work, and someone shot him. He died. A lot of people lost many of their family members.”
Q: What kind of safety precautions did you have to take?
Khaleefah: “I couldn’t walk anywhere by myself, pretty much. Our school was about three minutes away, and my parents were scared to even walk me there and leave me alone there because of how bad it was.”
Q: What was the final straw? What made your parents decide they needed to leave the country?
Khaleefah: “I don’t know. That’s a good question. I guess they just had enough. They just wanted to get us somewhere safe. They had enough of the killing and everything. They didn’t want that to happen to us.”
Q: Who left with you? Was it just your siblings and your parents?
Khaleefah: “That was about it. My cousins, too. They ended up leaving a couple years after we left.”
Q: How did you feel about it at the time? Were you happy or did you not want to leave?
Khaleefah: “I guess I didn’t (want to leave) because I had some friends there. But that wasn’t really a big deal compared to what we were trying to get away from. Like I said, it was just so bad that we had to get out of there.”
Q: What was the path from Iraq to the United States for your family?
Khaleefah: “My mom’s family lived in Syria for a little bit, so we went and lived with them for a couple months. Then we went to live in Egypt for about a year, maybe more. From there, we left and came to the U.S.”
Q: Was the goal always to get to the U.S. or was it just to get to somewhere else?
Khaleefah: “I think it was to go to the U.S. at first, but for some reason, we couldn’t go there right away. It was some paperwork and all that other stuff. It was still kind of dangerous to leave the country, so we had to wait a little bit.”
Q: Where did you initially move to in the United States?
Khaleefah: “It was Harrisonburg, Va. We had, they weren’t family members, but they were close friends with my aunt’s family. They took us in, and they helped us out a lot until we got on our own feet, me, my mom and my sister. My dad wasn’t there at the time. He had to stay back because there were some problems with the paperwork. We were without him for a couple months, and so then we moved into our own apartment. He ended up coming after.”
Q: How old were you when you made the move?
Khaleefah: “I was about eight or nine. I remember I was in fourth grade.”
Q: What was behind the decision to make the move to Dearborn?
Khaleefah: “Harrisonburg was a good place, but we just had my aunt’s family there. We just thought it would be easier for us to go live there.”
Q: What do your parents do for a living in Dearborn?
Khaleefah: “My mom is a teacher and my dad is self-employed.”
Q: Was it a tough transition coming to the United States? Were there a lot of things you had to learn to fit in?
Khaleefah: “Yeah, my English wasn’t bad because they taught us that in Egypt. But making new friends, especially when you can barely speak English, is kind of tough.”
Q: Before you found football, what were your plans? Did you have any idea what you wanted to do after high school?
Khaleefah: “No, not really. I was just going to go to college, probably community college at home. I didn’t really think about it. And even when I first started playing football, I didn’t really think about playing football in college until my coaches told me about it.”
Q: When you found out going to college for free was a possibility, what did that feel like?
Khaleefah: “It felt pretty good. At first, I wasn’t really the best player. But from all the work I’ve put in in the offseason on the field with my coaches, everything really went into place and really paid off.”
Q: Do you remember how your parents reacted to the idea that they could send you off to college without having to pay a dime?
Khaleefah: “I don’t think they believed me at first like, ‘Wow, that’s unreal.’ They said it would be hard to do, and I told them I’m going to do it.”
Q: Why Michigan State? Of all the options, why did that feel like the right one for you?
Khaleefah: “When I first started my recruitment, I was getting looked at by a lot of MAC schools, not these Power Five schools. Before all the Power Five schools started recruiting me, the first one to text me or ask me about a visit was Michigan State. I didn’t even contact them first. They contacted me. I was really excited by that.
“What they do over there with recruiting is really good, because they want to get to know you first. They’re not going to offer you because you’re some 5-star. They want to get to know you before they do. I went up there a lot at camp. I worked with the coaches. I love working with the coaches there. And every time I go there, it feels like home. It was really a no-brainer.”