Kei Kamara wears a big smile. He is playful with kids and fans, always the last man out signing autographs even when temperatures drop below freezing in his adoptive home of Columbus, Ohio. That smile grew even bigger during a recent game. A 2015 MVP frontrunner, Major League Soccer all-star and league top-scorer, Kamara admitted to being a little star-struck.
“It sounds weird, but being on the same field with [Didier] Drogba just made me smile,” he told FIFA.com. Kamara was born in Sierra Leone, but it was not just the West African kinship that moved him. “I’m a huge Chelsea fan,” chuckled the Columbus Crew striker, who even named his dog Chelsea. “Drogba’s a legend there.”
Right after the exchange, Kamara raced to the stand behind the goal at Crew stadium, where the heartiest fans stood waiting to lavish their hero with affection. Kamara often jumps into the crowd after scoring, performing elaborate celebrations with the fans, among the league’s noisiest and most passionate. It’s a place where he feels at home. He is loved and cherished. He is a part of an ad-hoc family. “They make me feel so much love,” he said. “All I want to do is give it back.”
There’s an ache in Kamara’s voice when he thinks about another home, when talk turns to his childhood. Central Ohio might well have been the planet Mars when he was a boy.
Born in Kenema, Sierra Leone, Kamara came of age in the heart of a brutal 11-year civil war that left his country in tatters. He witnessed executions in his home city, infiltrated early by rebels. “You woke up in the morning and there were dead bodies on the street, vultures eating their flesh,” Kamara recalled.
Football was the refuge. When the shooting stopped, Kamara and his friends cleared a space in the streets and started to play. “We just kicked an old ball around,” he said, a warmth for his youth in spite of the horrors endured. “There was no league. No goals. It wasn’t organised. The field was wherever you made it. It was just fun, and we played until the sun went down or the shooting started.”
Eventually, there was only shooting. No space for football. No room for the innocent protest of play. Kamara and his aunt were forced from their home. They were refugees. They hid in the bush to avoid the worst of the fighting and made the long way over scarred ground to the capital, Freetown. Some of Kamara’s friends, the boys he played with in the streets, became child soldiers, joining the rebels who offered at least the hope of protection. Many of them died, their soft bodies food for the vultures.
Kamara spent two years in a refugee camp in neighbouring Gambia, before he was granted asylum in the United States. He was 16 when he moved to California where he joined his mother who had emigrated a few years earlier.
Kenema to California
The transition from chaos to California was complicated for Kamara. He had missed so much school. He was behind. But football was the link in the chain, the small piece of home he brought with him over all those thousands of miles. “I joined a club and it’s like they adopted me,” he said, playing for the first time in full kit, with goalkeepers, on a proper pitch. “They let me express myself and be me.”
Kamara’s talent was undeniable. The debris and craters he swirled around on the ragged roads of Kenema made him adaptable, creative, able to make something from nothing. He was hungry for goals. He excelled at college level and eventually earned a professional contract. “I knew as soon as I got here that I wanted to play in MLS,” said the man who still admits to having nightmares from what he saw as a boy. “It was my motivation.”
It was not long before Kamara was called into his national team. And though he had taken US citizenship, he did not hesitate to accept Sierra Leone’s invitation in 2008. It was, after all, still home.
“I fell in love with the country again,” said Kamara, who had a stint in the English Premier League with Norwich City. “It’s like a family reunion when I go to play back there. They can’t believe I’ve gone on to become a footballer.”
Home is the theme that runs through Kamara’s life. Hanging on to it, being chased from it, finding it again in an unlikely corner of the American Midwest. In a time when refugees are sometimes talked about with impatience, Kei Kamara stands with his arms raised in front a mob of adoring fans. He drinks in home like a plant soaks the sun’s rays. The only explosions are fireworks, lighting up the sky around him. The only bullets are those he fires at goal, threatening to burst the net.