Right now, there are thousands of children who are fleeing Syria, risking their lives in search of a new home. They do not know about politics. They do not care who started the war. They are just desperate and confused and praying for kindness. I know, because I was just like them.
When I was six years old, I was sitting in my small classroom in Sierra Leone, preparing to take an exam, when my grandmother showed up at the door. She was sweating and out of breath. I immediately felt that something was wrong. My grandmother whispered a few words to my teacher and grabbed me by the hand. She told me that we had to go back home immediately.
As we walked back to our village, I started to connect the dots. My parents had both left the country for jobs in America when I was very young, so I lived with my grandparents. Sierra Leone is not like America or Europe. We had a waterfall in our backyard where you saw exotic animals. There were no video games. We would play outside every day, always without supervision. But suddenly my grandparents became very strict.
My grandmother would tell me, “Don’t go off into the bushes, because the Boogeyman will get you.”
Only she wasn’t joking around. She was serious. It was a warning.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Boogeyman wasn’t a monster. The boogeymen were the rebels from the Revolutionary United Front, who would abduct children from their villages and force them to become child soldiers. Sierra Leone was in the midst of a civil war, and it was getting closer and closer to our door. I was oblivious to all this, of course. My entire world was school and soccer. But by the time my grandmother came for me in class, the situation was desperate. The RUF was on the doorstep of our peaceful town. When we got back to our village, my relatives were grabbing all my clothes and stuffing them into a suitcase. It was chaotic. People were arguing and running around in a panic. Even as a six year old, I could feel the tension.
Finally, I went up to my great grandmother and asked, “What’s going on? Why is everyone acting so crazy?”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re going on vacation to America. They’re just excited.”
The next minute, I was getting into a car with my uncle, and looking back at my house with my tiny little suitcase and thinking, Wow, I’m going to Hollywood! Because in Africa, that was our whole concept of America back then: Hollywood.
Little did I know, that would be the last time I would see my home for 20 years.
When my uncle and I got to the port outside of Freetown, things got very real. There was a huge mass of people with suitcases trying to get onto the ferry. Government soldiers with machine guns and bazookas were patrolling the line. When we pushed our way to the front, one of the soldiers got very aggressive with my uncle, asking for his visa.
He didn’t have one. The soldier started pushing him away with his gun, and I got extremely scared. Then my uncle picked me up and handed me over the crowd to a soldier who was on the ferry.
The next thing I know I’m standing on the ferry, and … I’ll never forget that blur of guns and legs and shouting. Then the ferry started to move. My uncle was gone. I was alone in the chaos.
The crazy thing is, the next part of the journey is kind of missing from my memory. I followed the crowds at the airport and clutched my plane ticket. The airport attendants or a family friend must have guided me to the gate. I had never flown in an airplane before. I had never even been on vacation. I remember the plane lifting off the ground and thinking, We’re flying in a huge metal tube … in the air. Nothing made sense. My entire world was changing so fast that I couldn’t process it.
When the plane landed, I thought I was in Hollywood. Then I walked out into the terminal and all the signs didn’t make any sense. They were in a foreign language.
I started to panic. I had two thoughts:
Where am I?
Where are all the people who look like me?
Something that makes Sierra Leone unique is that skin color is never really talked about. There was no, “You’re black, you’re white, you’re purple, you’re pink.” You were just part of the neighborhood. This felt very different. I felt like everyone in the airport was staring at me. When I tried to speak to someone, they looked down at me like I was from another planet. It was the first time in my life that I realized that people could be considered different.
I wasn’t in Hollywood. I was in Paris.
I completely broke down crying right there in the hallway of Charles de Gaulle airport. I actually thought my life was over. I thought nobody was ever going to come for me and I’d be trapped in that airport forever. People just kept walking past me, like I wasn’t there. Then, a flight attendant that was on my plane recognized me. I remember her looking at my ticket and saying, “You’re going to America. Come with me.”
To six-year-old me, it felt like this woman saved my life. They put me on the second plane, and we went up into the sky again, into the unknown. I was thinking, Hollywood is very far away. The world must be very big.
When we landed again, I walked into the terminal and was relieved that the signs were in English. Granted, my English wasn’t great, but at least I knew I was in the right country. There was only one problem: My mother had left Sierra Leone when I was three years old, and the only things I had to recognize her were old photographs. This was before everyone had a cell phone. I had no idea who was supposed to come for me, or where I was going.
I followed the crowd of people from the plane out into the little roundabout outside Arrivals. Paved roads were a new thing in Sierra Leone, so the first thing I noticed was that the roads in America were all very smooth. There were so many brand new cars. People kept getting out of the cars and running up to their loved ones, and giving them hugs. Then they would get into the car and drive away, smiling.
This went on for a while. People came and went. I was alone. Nobody was coming for me. I walked around the parking lot for a long time until a station wagon started following behind me very slowly. I started to freak out. I thought I came all this way just to get kidnapped by the Boogeyman. Then a woman got out and started running toward me. I was about to drop my suitcase and run away as fast as I could when she said, “Michael!”
It was my mother.
So this is where most stories end and you go back to Facebook, and feel pretty good about humanity. Even if you don’t know who I am, you can Google my name, and see that I went to college and currently play in the MLS. There’s your happy ending.
If you want the story to be that straightforward, click away now.
Because this is where the story of a refugee crisis like the one that happened in my country, or the one that is currently happening in the Middle East, gets more complicated and difficult.
I was the only one in my village to be granted an emergency visa before the civil war exploded. All my classmates who stayed and took their exam the day my grandmother came for me, and all the people from my village, and all the rest of my family, did not get that magic piece of paper. They were trapped in a war that they wanted no part in. Thousands of children were abducted and forced to fight. The war touched every part of the country.
I can only speak to my own experience, but life as a refugee in a new country is extremely lonely. When I realized that I was in Washington D.C. instead of Hollywood, and that I was staying in America permanently instead of on a long vacation, reality set in. On the first day of school, I noticed that everyone was dressed very differently. In my Catholic school in Sierra Leone, everyone wore a shirt and tie. Here, clothes mattered. Hairstyles mattered. Even the designs on your school folders mattered.
In the middle of the day, a voice came over the loudspeaker: “Michael Lahoud, please come to the reading room.” I had to get up in front of everyone and go to my English as Second Language class. I was so embarrassed. For a long time, I felt like I was on display.
The only thing I wanted in life was a friend.
One day, at recess, I was sitting alone watching a big group of kids play “wallball” when the tennis ball rolled over toward me. The kids were shouting, “Hey, throw it back! Throw it back!” But I had never thrown a ball in my life. So I did what was natural — I kicked it. As soon as it left my foot, I realized. Oh no, this weird yellow ball is really light. The ball went flying onto the roof of the school.
The record skipped.
Everyone was looking at me, like, What the heck, kid? You ruined our recess! Come on!
They all turned away and groaned, pissed off.
I wanted to run away and never come back to the school.
Then one of the kids came running over to me. I thought maybe he was coming to beat me up. I kind of tensed up.
“Dude, who kicks a ball like that?” he said. He held his hand up like a wave. I just stared at him. “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”
He was trying to give me a high five.
“My name’s Jack,” he said. “We should be friends.”
That might have been the best moment of my life.
“Yeah!” I said.
“Okay, you’re coming to my house.”
After that day, I spent a good part of the next 10 years of my life at Jack Wolf’s house. We became best friends. I met everybody through Jack. He was the kid everyone loved. He was rocking the laid-back surfer look before it was even popular in Virginia. He had swagger back when it was called being “rad.” He was a natural leader.
Jack had a rule, even when we were 10 years old: Before we could go out into the backyard and play soccer after school, we had to finish our homework at the kitchen table first. No joke — the dude would put on classical music while we did our work. He exposed me to so many things that I didn’t know about, and yet he was always curious about my own African culture.
He saw being different as something cool. Back when I still had a strong accent, he used to say, “Man, think about all the girls we’re going to get when we get older because of your accent. We’re gonna be golden!”
Jack had no idea what I had just been through when he ran up to me at recess. He didn’t know I was from West Africa. He didn’t know about the civil war. He didn’t care. He just thought I was somebody different who was worth getting to know. This Irish-American kid with platinum blonde hair became the twin brother I never had.
When I watch the news now and see the refugees lining up to make it into Europe, the question that keeps coming up in my mind is not, “How will they assimilate?”
My question is, “Who will be their Charles de Gaulle flight attendant? Who will be their Jack Wolf?”
I understand that it is a complex question. I’m just a soccer player, not a politician. But I can tell you that on a human level, it is very simple: Those people, especially the children, are caught up in a tide. They’re confused and scared. They’re just looking for somebody to be a friend.
If you talked to me now, you wouldn’t know about my past. I lost my accent. I went to Wake Forest University, then on to the MLS. I became a real American. And again, this is where most stories go out with the happy ending. “Civil War Refugee Comes to America and Becomes Soccer Pro.” Who doesn’t want to share that story on Facebook?
Again, the reality is more complicated.
The truth is that I’m no different than anyone else who enjoys relative safety and security. By the time I got to high school, I had put Sierra Leone out of my mind. It was easier to ignore. There were times when I had to face the grim truth, like when I saw the movie Blood Diamond, or when my grandmother finally joined us in Virginia after the civil war and all her happiness — all her natural joy — seemed to be drained out of her body. She had a very hard time interacting with people. I knew she had seen horrible things, but I didn’t want to dig too deeply into the truth.
Everything changed in 2010. I was playing for Chivas USA in the MLS. We were on a road trip to Seattle. I was sitting on the team bus, probably thinking about cars and women like any 23-year-old kid. When I stepped off the bus to go into our hotel, a total stranger came up to me.
“Hey, do you have a second to talk in the lobby?” the woman said.
“Uhh … I’m sorry?” I said.
“I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for a while. How would you like to change the world?”
What she said shook me to my core. It felt like the moment when Jack came up to me at school. It felt like someone opened a door. We talked in the lobby and she explained that her name was Cindy and she worked with Schools for Salone, an organization dedicated to improving the decimated education system in Sierra Leone.
Our conversation forced me to take a hard look at how lucky I was to escape the conflict. After some soul searching, I told Cindy, “I don’t want to just tweet about this. I want to build a school.”
So we set out to raise $50,000 over the next few years to build a school in Sierra Leone. I had not been back in 20 years. Truthfully, I didn’t truly understand the challenges that we were facing until 2013, when I got a call from the national team manager of Sierra Leone. I was asked to declare my nationality for Sierra Leone for a World Cup qualifying match. It was a very significant decision for me. I had tried so hard to be American that I ignored my African roots for a long time.
I said yes.
When I touched down in Sierra Leone, everyone told me I would have this very emotional reaction, like in a movie. The truth is that I felt empty. I did not recognize anything from my childhood. The war had destroyed everything. The country I left was a beautiful place. At the time, Sierra Leone was the most prosperous country on the whole continent of Africa. The currency had an almost one-to-one conversion rate with the U.S. dollar. Now, all I saw was rubble, despair, desperation.
When I got to my village, I went to my grandmother’s house. She was one of the last people to see me before I left Sierra Leone. She came out of her room and saw me for the first time in 20 years, and she just started crying.
I said, “Grandma, are you okay? What’s wrong?”
She said, “Every day I prayed for you. I always knew you’d come back, and I knew you would be a great man.”
I absolutely lost it.
She didn’t ask me about life in America. She didn’t ask me about playing soccer. All she cared about was that I was a good man.
My grandmother passed away last year. Despite everything that she had been through, I’m happy that she got to see that I didn’t forget about Sierra Leone. The country still faces incredible challenges, including a recent outbreak of Ebola. It’s easy to look away and think about less complicated things. But we should all take a lesson from Jack Wolf on the playground. What do we want to be as a society? Do we want to groan and turn away from those who need our help? Or do we want to run towards them with our hand outstretched, saying, “Hey, we should be friends.”
It’s a lot harder to be Jack Wolf. But thank God for fools like him.
Michael Lahoud and fellow MLS player Kei Kamara are opening their first primary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone this year. To find out how you can help, visit Schools for Salone