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United Faith players a long way from home

Croatia. England. Sudan. Nigeria. Serbia. Canada.

It helps to have a globe nearby when you're looking at the list of current and former basketball players at United Faith Christian Academy.

This year, as part of the school's international student program, five international students will play for the Falcons' boys' basketball team.

The program officially started in 2008, though the school had several international students before then. The school currently has 19 international students, with the youngest in fifth grade. They come from countries like South Korea, Russia, Ukraine and England.

The students stay with host families in Charlotte and some go home during the summer. The school provides need-based financial aid for some international students, just like it does for local students.

"The basketball program is just a small part of our international student program," said coach Shaun Wiseman.

Wiseman's first two international players, Damir Zdnic from Croatia and Jovan Varagic from Serbia, came in 2007, his first year with the team.

"It keeps getting bigger and bigger every year," he said.

Wiseman added that people usually contact him with players who are interested in coming to the school and playing basketball in the United States. After that, he said, he's "out of the loop."

"I haven't met them until I picked them up from the airport," said Wiseman.

Two of the international students who played under Wiseman have gotten a chance to play basketball at Division I colleges. Nemanja Mikic of Serbia is a freshman forward at George Washington University, where he is averaging 9.7 points per game (through Dec. 2).

Kadeem Green, from Canada, graduated from United Faith last year and is a freshman forward at Missouri.

United Faith's headmaster, Dr. Joe Siragusa, said having the international students at the school also benefits American students.

"The international student program is important to our school," he said. "We all know the value of a global experience with the world these students are going to live in."

Siragusa said since they can't send all their students overseas, the program brings other cultures to the school. As a Christian school, it also gives the international students a chance to deepen their faith and share it when they go back to their home country, like "missions in reverse," he said.

Wiseman did say there are barriers in language and it takes time to get used to the change.

"There's an adjustment period not only for them but for us," he said.

United Faith's current international students have adjusted well and brought quite a bit of size to the Falcons.

Peter Jurkin, a junior who came from Sudan three years ago, is a 7-foot center and is committed to play college basketball at Indiana. He has not been able to play early in the season because of a stress fracture in his foot.

Jurkin said United Faith helped him have a chance to go to college.

"This school really helped me a lot," he said. "I'm really excited. I can't wait to go and start playing college basketball."

Jurkin said he came to the U.S. primarily to play basketball, but he has also gotten a good education, with teachers taking time to make sure he understands the subject and giving him help.

The hard part for him is not seeing his family. He has three brothers in Texas, but most of his family is still in Sudan. He hasn't been back since he came to the school, but he hopes to go back this summer, he said.

"It's really hard," said Jurkin. "I miss my family and friends."

In addition to Jurkin, the Falcons have four new international players this year. Bruno Becca, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, and Ivan Benkovic, a 6-foot-5 junior, came from Croatia. Benkovic is one of the best shooters on the team, making six three-pointers in the Falcons' first game.

Benkovic said he was happy to come to a "good Christian school" to get an education, but things are very different from home.

"The basketball is faster and stronger," he said, adding that there are also different rules, like the three-point line being further from the basket in Europe. Off the court, he said the food is different, especially all the fast food.

Bradley Fisher came from England four months ago and, as a freshman, is the tallest member of the team at 7-foot-1. He said he came to play basketball and go to a new school.

"I'm enjoying every minute of it," he said.

Junior Henry Uwadiae, from Nigeria, joined the team in January and adds even more size to the United Faith lineup at 6-10. He said he came to play basketball and is working hard to get better and adjust to the different playing style.

International students have helped United Faith to two straight N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 1A championships and, with players like Paris Roberts-Campbell, a senior guard committed to East Carolina, have gotten the Falcons off to a 3-2 start (through Dec. 2), including a win over Oak Ridge Military Academy early in the season.

The Falcons have struggled with Jurkin missing time and Braxton Obbueze, a junior who is one of the top point guards in the country, still out with a broken bone in his wrist.

Teams "had better get us early," said Wiseman. "This team's going to be really good."

But more than wins, the experience is important for the players.

"For most of these kids it's a life-changing experience," he said.

"I'm really blessed to be here," said Jurkin.