COLUMBUS — When the Ohio State Buckeyes arrive in New Orleans on Jan. 2 for the national championship game against LSU, defensive tackle Nader Abdallah will serve as unofficial tour guide.
There are parts of his hometown, however, that he’ll stay away from. Seeing them again is just too painful.
“I’ll take some of my teammates and show them around, show them the sights, but I don’t want them to go far,” he said. “There are some sad places now. There are parts of town that looked like they were destroyed yesterday, not two years ago. There are certain places that will never get back to normal.”
Abdallah cannot wait to get to New Orleans, the city where he was raised after his parents emigrated from Palestine and built a life around their small store. At the same time, he’s afraid of what he won’t see — the friends who have left, the neighborhoods obliterated, the lives uprooted or even snuffed out when Hurricane Katrina leveled large swaths of the city in August 2005.
His parents’ store in the Third Ward’s Magnolia Projects was officially called LaSalle Market, although it was known as Hulio’s to everyone in the hard-scrabble blocks which surrounded it. Not far from the Superdome, it served as one part grocery and one part social epicenter. People didn’t just buy rice and beans at Hulio’s, they saw their friends and became a part of the fabric of neighborhood.
But Hulio’s was erased by the hurricane. Abdallah, a junior backup for the Buckeyes, mourns the passing of the colorful setting for his childhood.
“It was one of the worst projects in the world; it was crazy. But the store was never robbed once in 25 years, I guess because people had respect for my family and what they built,” he said proudly. “I was a butcher, stocked shelves, worked the cash register. I worked there since I was 6 years old. I didn’t play football until I was a junior in high school, so that was pretty much my whole life. People came in for Po’ Boys, jambalaya, gumbo. We could serve it all, anything you could imagine. It was an everything-you-need store.”
Now it’s gone, along with much of the culture which surrounded it. Gone, too, are so many friends, relatives, and the people he knew on his street.
Abdallah has shared his story, and that of his family and his city, with his teammates. They don’t know exactly what to expect.
“The tragedy that happened there was a big thing,” linebacker Larry Grant said. “We have a player on our team whose family experienced that in Nader Abdallah, and he’s told everybody a lot about what they experienced.”
Even though the life he knew has been all but erased, even though there is little remaining to remind him of what the city was like, Abdallah cannot contain himself. Even if it has undergone dramatic change, even if his friends and family have been replaced by strangers, New Orleans is still his home.
“My dad came here from a refugee camp in Palestine. It took him a long time to get his own store,” Abdallah said. “That’s why you have to appreciate everything. I want to make it an American dream. Right now, it’s in the process. I’ve got to play my best. I’m trying to represent for Palestine, New Orleans, my family ... everybody.”
As the storm bore down on New Orleans, Abdallah was almost 800 miles away in Columbus, getting ready for another year of school and football.
His family was evacuated the day before Katrina hit. A brother, Wesam, stayed behind in a vain attempt to save the store. While working in the attic, he was overcome with fatigue and fumes and passed out. When he came to, he heard the gunshots of looters breaking into the store and slipped out into the rising tide, swimming in darkness through the murky waters, bumping into dead bodies floating by.
It was too late for the store, which was uninsured, and for the house in Metairie that Abdallah’s family called home, which had to be razed.
“After Katrina hit, everything was fine,” he said. “But when the levees broke a day later, that’s when everything went bad.”
It was also too late for large sections of the Third Ward. Abdallah’s parents, two brothers and sister came to live in Columbus while they tried to pick up the pieces of what once was such a promising life.
Despite everything that has happened to him and his family, Abdallah remains upbeat. Of his return, he said, “This is going to be the greatest experience in my life, being able to go home, playing against my former (high school) teammates and my friends. Going back to my home to play my home team .. . it doesn’t get any better than that.”
The Buckeyes, aware of what he’s been through, stand behind him as surrogate brothers and family members.
“Nader’s come such a long way,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “You look back to when he first got here, how far he’s come.”
His homecoming will be bittersweet. Much of “home” isn’t there.
His father, Younes, and mother, Izzieh, came to this country with little more than what they could carry. Their lives shattered, they have moved back to the Middle East.
Nader’s two brothers and sister have relocated to Houston. They’re the only family he has left in the U.S. His oldest brother died from an accidental shooting when Nader was very young and another died two years ago while driving an 18-wheeler.
Some cousins remain in New Orleans. The French Quarter remains, a beacon of the city’s vibrant will to live on. There are still landmarks, places he’ll remember from his youth, things that have withstood time and the ravages of that awful storm.
“It’s not the same feeling, because you’re used to seeing your mom and being at your mom’s house,” he said. “I go back to where we used to have that store and there’s hardly nobody there anymore because it’s all wiped out. They’ve got a bunch of trailers there, people living in trailers, because all that stuff is wiped out.”
Everything but the memories.