A 14-year-old Kei Kamara sits in a wooden boat filled with about 40 Africans who are trying desperately to escape the war-torn city of Freetown, Sierra Leone. He, along with a handful of family members, is heading toward Lungi, a coastal town that houses Sierra Leone’s only airport.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR | THE KANSAS CITY STAR
Make it there, Kamara knows, and they could fly to nearby Gambia, a much safer country.
Kamara worries the boat — designed to carry 20 people — will sink. As the water splashes around at his feet during the hour-long ordeal, his fears only intensify.
It’s just another type of terror for Kamara, who played soccer as a child amidst 12-year-old soldiers carrying guns and dead bodies strewn about the road. To this day, it’s still enough to give Kamara, now 25 and a forward for the Wizards, nightmares.
“People like us,” Kamara says of native Sierra Leoneans, “are scared for life. Sometimes I feel like I’m still living there. Every time that I wake up, I’m like ‘I’m alive’… and I just pray.”
Darkness and struggles lurk in Kamara’s past as he builds a career in Major League Soccer. He has played for four teams in five years and has dealt with the death of Yusifu Sesay, his father figure.
But there are also sources of light along the way. Soccer has always brought Kamara happiness, as well as his family’s strong foundation and unabashed loyalty.
Through it all, Kamara remains grateful. As is Wizards coach and technical director Peter Vermes, who is thankful to have Kamara on the team’s roster.
“Him being here,” Vermes says, “is going to do nothing but help us.”
• • •
The nightmares occur randomly. Kamara doesn’t always remember the specific details, but they always involve him running away from something.
Growing up, he did a lot of that. The bloody civil war that started in 1991 and claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people required it, whether he was running away from the soldiers that demanded to stay at his home, or running for cover when the sound of gunfire broke up street soccer games.
“You never knew if you were going to get out of there,” says Kamara, who missed school for months at a time because of the war. “But my family was very strong in keeping us all together.”
At the center of his family was his cousin, Yusifu. Kamara’s father wasn’t around, and his mother, Fatima, moved to America when Kamara was younger so she could provide a better life for Kei and his siblings.
Fatima left them with Kamara’s aunt and sent back clothes, toys and cash she earned while working in the United States. But it was Yusifu, who was almost 20 years older than Kei, who watched over them and made sure they stayed out of trouble.
“He didn’t just run our house, he ran most of the town because everyone respected him so much,” Kamara says. “He was like a dad to me. He taught me almost everything I know about life.”
But with the violence escalating, Kamara and his family moved to the capital, Freetown, where they escaped the war by taking that nighttime boat ride — “Usually they would stop any kind of traffic from going out (during the day),” Kamara says — to Lungi, where they boarded a flight to Gambia.
In 2000, Kamara made the journey to America, where he was reunited with his mother in California. Kamara, who says he’s lost some family — mainly cousins — to the war, was excited at the chance for a new life.
Little did he know that the biggest blow of all was yet to come. Yusifu, the father of five kids, opted to stay behind.
“He wanted to stay,” Kamara says. “We have such a big family, with him being there, he could make sure everybody was OK.”
• • •
Kamara immediately took advantage of the opportunities in the United States. He became a citizen, displayed a knack for soccer and earned a scholarship to Division II California State-Dominguez Hills, where he was selected third-team All-America as a senior.
Things continued to look up for Kamara when he broke into Major League Soccer in 2006 with the Columbus Crew. He started 13 games and scored five goals in his first two MLS seasons.
A request for more playing time led him to San Jose, where he was dealt before the 2008 season. After starting 11 games there, he was sent to Houston four months into the season and remained productive, getting two goals and two assists for the Dynamo in 10 games.
By February 2009, Kamara had established himself in America. He was optimistic about his future with the Dynamo, though there was also a part of him that yearned to play in some of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world, almost all of which are in Europe.
But things eventually turned sour for Kamara in Houston, too. The Dynamo, headed toward a playoff berth with Kamara as a starter, dealt him to the Wizards last September for forward Abe Thompson, who is no longer in the league.
At the time, the Houston Chronicle reported that Kamara and Houston coach Dominic Kinnear had been at odds.
“Instead of saying that it was about business, which it was, they said I was a bad apple,” Kamara says. “And I wasn’t happy about that. I’ve never been a negative influence in a locker room.”
Kamara, who was in the final year of his MLS contract, fumed about being traded to the Wizards, who were all but out of the playoff race.
During their first conversation, Kamara asked Vermes to trade him.
“I told him I only had two more months in the MLS, and after that I’m leaving and I’m not coming back,” Kamara says.
Vermes convinced Kamara to give Kansas City a shot, and he wound up scoring a goal in six games with the Wizards last year.
But his time in Kansas City had done little to change his mind. By the end of October, he was convinced he was gone.
• • •
Kamara glanced at his cell phone, saw the number and immediately knew something was wrong.
It was April 8, 2008, and Kamara was about to head to practice in San Jose when he received the call from his sister.
Yusifu Sesay was in the hospital. Kamara had already spoken to his sister and Yusifu that day and calling more than once a day was rare. Kamara knew what his sister was calling to tell him.
Yusifu, 42, had died.
To this day, Kamara says, no one knows exactly what put Yusifu in the hospital. All Kamara knows is that what started as a toothache grew into something much worse. Doctors took Yusifu’s wisdom teeth out, but he was still in pain. Then his stomach started hurting and things complicated.
Days earlier, Kamara had urged his relatives back in Africa to take Yusifu to the hospital, which they did. It just didn’t help.
Yusifu’s death was the latest psychological blow to Kamara. The war had been over for years, and he still can’t believe that sickness — not gunfire — caused his beloved cousin to die.
“Africa, man,” Kamara says with a hint of anger. “The treatment just isn’t there for things that can be easily dealt with in Europe.”
Kamara is still getting used to life without Yusifu. His death has left a void in the entire family, but Kamara is doing his best to fill it the best he can from thousands of miles away.
Kamara, who has no kids of his own, says he sends a sizable portion of his check (he made $65,385 last year according to the MLS players union) to his family back in Africa so they can buy the necessities — food and school tuition.
“I wish I could tell you how much I spend,” says Kamara, who has returned to Sierra Leone several times since the war ended in 2002. “All I can say is that I don’t have the savings account that most of the players have because I have a responsibility.”
Kamara’s generosity, apparently, has not gone unnoticed. He hopes to start a tuition fund so other kids in Sierra Leone can go to school.
“Before he died, my family members started telling me that I’m so much like him,” Kamara says of Yusifu. “I was proud, because I wanted to be like that.”
• • •
It’s a recent spring night and Wizards teammate Michael Harrington sits in Kamara’s Plaza apartment, watching a movie called “Blood Diamond,” while eating a tasty African dish called peanut butter stew.
The movie, a fictional tale set during the war in Sierra Leone about two men searching for a rare diamond, is Kamara’s favorite. He says it accurately portrays what life was like in his country, so it reminds him of home.
For Harrington, it’s simply a reality check.
“It’s crazy how different we grew up,” Harrington says. “The stuff he was dealing with at an early age was crazy to see.
“You could just see it in his eyes, the way it touched him.”
It’s a little surprising this educational moment even got a chance to happen, considering Kamara had his sights set on leaving the MLS five months earlier. He waited patiently for offers from European teams after the 2009 season, but Vermes kept calling, kept reminding him how much he could help the Wizards.
“Peter is a strong guy,” Kamara says now with a laugh. “I can see other coaches saying ‘Forget (Kei Kamara).’ But he knew what he wanted.”
Kamara finally relented in December, although he says he had a couple of offers to play in Scandinavia and teams in Greece and Germany later tried to sign him to better offers. But he kept his word to Vermes and signed a four-year contract with the MLS in February, though Kamara could still leave after the season if he gets a good offer from a European team.
“I really believe he made the right decision,” Vermes says. “I think he’ll be that much more prepared to play overseas. Hopefully that doesn’t happen, but I’m a realist as well.”
After winning their first two matches of the season, the Wizards have lost three of their last four. But Kamara has scored a team-high three goals, despite the fact he’s been adjusting to a slightly different position — right forward.
“Right now I’m happy,” says Kamara, who prefers his more natural center forward position. “I’m getting used to it.”
Kamara knows better than to take it for granted. For all the bad things his past has given him, it’s made him a stronger person and given him perspective. He makes a living playing the sport he loves and he is able to provide for his family.
“I’m happy I went through the things I did,” Kamara says. “I don’t know how much I’d appreciate what I have if I didn’t go through all that. I’m blessed to be doing what I’m doing.
“I still have my bad days,” Kamara continues. “But I know I’ve been through worse.”
•Population: About 5 million
•Area: 29,925 square miles; slightly smaller than South Carolina
•Capital: Freetown (est. pop. 786,900)
•Life expectancy: 55.25 years
•Government: Established British independence in 1961. In 1991, a military coup started a 10-year civil war. In 2007, Sierra Leone held nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections.
•Economy: $2.064 billion gross domestic product. Diamond mining provides most of the country’s exports but two-thirds of the population engages in subsistence agriculture.
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send e-mail to email@example.com | Source: U.S. State Department