Nairobi Football Team’s Biggest Loss Was When Terrorists Killed An Exceptional Girl

Nuriana Merali, 15, a rising soccer star at her school, was killed in the terrorist attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya last month.

NAIROBI, Kenya – The girls’ football team at the International School of Kenya faced many challenges this season, but the worst opponent wasn’t on the field – the Lions lost a rising star player to the terrorist attack at the Westgate mall.

Freshman Nuriana Merali, who was 15, was killed in the Sept. 21 attack by al-Shabab terrorists.
Her friends and teammates remembered an impressive girl.
“She never stopped smiling,” said Naheeda Madhani, an eighth grade student.
Nuriana died at the mall alongside her mother, Selima Merali. Her nine-year-old brother, Aliyaaz, survived two gunshot wounds.
Football coach Sagar Lakhani – called “Coach Sags” by the team – said the girls lost a vital member who would have greatly enriched the group over the next four years.
“With the whole team, there is a lot of fear and anger towards what happened,” Lakhani said. “We feel she had tremendous potential and that was obvious in other areas. The key for us is to look forward. We must realize the unpredictable nature in life.
The only freshman on the team, Nurian’s athletic prowess and work ethic made her a standout. Among the fastest on the team, she came with an impressive pedigree.
Nuriana was elected female athlete of the year in middle school last June.

“Nuriana was an exceptional person and athlete, but above and beyond her athletic ability, she had the power to inspire her teammates,” said Derrick Quinet, athletic director.

Nuriana Merali, in the light blue jersey, handles the ball during a football game. (Photo provided.)

When asked about Nuriana winning the female athlete award, Quinet said, “as much support as she received to be the female athlete, she received equal support for the sportsmanship award.”

The loss went beyond sport for many players.
Ella Blanchard, an eighth grade student, had a bond of friendship with Nuriana.
They played together on football and basketball teams in middle school, and Nuriana provided support and encouragement for Blanchard, who felt pushed aside by the senior girls.
“I felt Nuriana was the only girl that listened to me when I spoke,” she said. “I will never forget Nuriana and her kindness. We had so many laughs together.”
The girls planned to share a home in Ethiopia at the International Schools of South and East Africa sports tournament next month, one of two yearly ISSEA competitions  in football, volleyball and basketball.

Nuriana Merali, in the light blue jersey, handles the ball during a football game. (Photo provided)

The International School of Kenya’s girls ISSEA football team was struggling even before the attacks.

Just nine girls showed up for tryouts. This hit the team hard as they had already lost at least five athletes who graduated or left the school. The team currently has 10 players – one player short of an ideal team.
The girls are trying to stay strong despite the loss of a key player.
“We should take all opportunities in life whole heartedly, “ the coach said.
The girls know when they take the field Nuriana will be there.
“Although her body is not here playing alongside us, we know her soul is still with us,” Blanchard said.

Youth Journalism International Junior Reporter Nandi Blanchard is the older sister of Ella Blanchard, who is quoted in this story.