Return to Sierra Leone
A refugee-turned-soccer coach is mobilizing local efforts to bring technology to the children of his home country.
Early on the morning of January 6, 1997, Abdul Sesay was doing what he loved most — playing soccer — when his world was turned upside down. He was just about to make his way home through the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone, when the city erupted in gunfire and the bursting of artillery shells. Civil war had descended upon his nation.
Sesay, who was 14, sprinted frantically as he tried to make it back to his family, ducking and hiding behind buildings to avoid getting caught in the crossfire between rebel and government forces. He finally made it to his family’s house and found his uncle inside, alone. His arms had been cut off. His mother, brother, father and sister were not in sight. His uncle told him to flee immediately, and as Sesay raced out of the house he saw his father, an opponent of the government, dead in their back yard.
He kept running. After a few days of hiding in Freetown, he was able to find passage on a boat north. He was one of 600,000 displaced victims of Sierra Leone’s civil war who fled for neighboring Guinea.
“I was with thousands and thousands of people, but I was by myself,” Sesay recalls.
Even so, he was one of the lucky ones, escaping a war that would claim 50,000 lives in a tiny nation of 6 million people. As his boat made its way from the shore, he and another boy were given the task of pushing away the dead bodies blocking its path away from Freetown.
In the unlikely journey that would ensue, Sesay’s deftness on the soccer field would eventually propel him from a refugee camp to the United States, where he would play on the L.A. Galaxy reserve team and earn both a bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s in sports psychology. Yet he would never forget his people.
Sesay has dedicated himself to providing the children of Sierra Leone a better future by building an educational facility in his hometown that focuses on computer literacy – a necessary skill in today’s digital age. He has launched an effort to build an educational center in his homeland that will culminate with a shipment of computers and other supplies that is already en route to Sierra Leone. His organization, the Give Back to the Children Project, will hold a crucial fundraiser on Dec. 22 in Hermosa Beach to insure that this mission is completed.
Sesay, 29, now lives in Hawthorne and coaches soccer in Manhattan Beach. He is a soft-spoken man with warm brown eyes. His gentle manner, however, does not diminish the zeal of his cause.
“I have a place to sleep, I eat every day, I have a job,” says Sesay. “But the kids back home…”
Sesay’s first year in the refugee camps of Guinea were spent desperately alone. He struggled on his own. With no shoes, no money, no family and no food, he lived day to day, sleeping in corners and surviving off of wild fruits he found.
One soccer game changed everything.
He was watching the game from afar, and one player he recognized from his camp had stomped off following a disagreement. Sesay didn’t care about soccer – his entire mind was occupied the thought of finding his mom – but he wanted to help the team out. So he approached the coach and asked to play.
“And he looked at me and said, ‘Get out of here! You don’t even have shoes!’” Sesay says.
So he sat back down to watch the game. With the team losing by one goal, the coach reluctantly decided to give the boy a chance. After borrowing shoes from another kid, Sesay immediately tied the game and shortly made the winning goal.
“That’s where my life changed. I became a celebrity in the camp,” Sesay says. “People gave me clothes, shoes, food… If I sat down, everybody wanted to sit down around me.”
During those three years in refuge, he learned to fend for himself by making himself invaluable in the camps’ organized soccer games and tournaments. “Playing soccer at the camp was the thing that kept people lively and forget about the misery,” he remembers. “So I was playing soccer at these camps and people started recognizing me.”
Word of his prowess must have traveled far past the bounds of the camps because one day, someone from a professional team in Guinea came to recruit him. “This team came and said, ‘We’re gonna give you a place to stay. We’re gonna give you something to take care of yourself,’” Sesay says.
For three years, he played for the team. But once again, word of his skills traveled far – this time, all the way to Los Angeles. In 2002, he received an invitation to try out for the L.A. Galaxy. It was a surreal opportunity, he recalls.
“It’s not something I had to decide – it was a given,” Sesay says with a smile. “Every kid in my country wants to come to the United States. Every kid.”
Although he ultimately arrived too late to fill a spot on the team, this marked the beginning of a new, privileged life in the United States that his peers back home could only dream about.
When the audition didn’t work out, someone from the Galaxy suggested Sesay enroll in college – “They said the best way to play soccer here in America is through school, college soccer,” he recalls. “And my dad’s words suddenly came to mind.”
His father, who was an education advocate in Sierra Leone, always emphasized the importance of education and knowledge to young Sesay, who finished high school in Freetown.
“Every time we had a conversation, it was about education,” he recalls of his late father. “He always told me, you can’t play soccer for the rest of your life. If you get injured, that’s the end of it. But your education, nobody takes it away from you.”
Sesay enrolled in Los Angeles Harbor College and subsequently transferred to Cal Poly San Luis Obisbo on a full scholarship for soccer. At Cal Poly, he asked his counselor what he should study to work for the United Nations.
“I remembered seeing young people from the UN helping us refugees at the camps, and I said, ‘Oh, I want to be like that,’” he says, laughing.
With the counselor’s advice, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science with an emphasis in cross culture, acquiring vast knowledge of various cultures around the world.
But more importantly, his time at Cal Poly gave birth to a legacy much bigger than himself.
While at Cal Poly, he volunteered with the American Youth Soccer Association. Regularly seeing children with laptops and other resources available to them, he couldn’t help but think of the kids back home in Sierra Leone.
The education system in Sierra Leone is still recovering from the civil war. According to a 2007 report by The World Bank, the government’s decision at the end of war to offer free primary education led to a doubling in student enrollment. However, the quality of education still suffers. Most schools have poor classroom conditions and lack sufficient learning materials.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I do to make a difference? How can I help those kids back home?’” Sesay says. “And I came to a conclusion that without a computer, you have no future because the world is changing. And the kids back home don’t know how to use a computer. You give a kid a computer, you give him the world.”
He consulted professors and fellow classmates, and in 2007, Sesay founded the Give Back to the Children Project.
Until recently, running the organization – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit – had been a one-man show for Sesay, who was faring decently with cash and in-kind donations of $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
But in Manhattan Beach, where he coaches youth in the Sand & Surf soccer club, he found a community of people eager to help his cause.
“When I found out about his organization, I told him that this is something people are clearly interested in,” says Prakash Sarathy, whose son was on Sesay’s soccer team. “I said, ‘You’re coaching a Manhattan Beach team. This is the place you want to start and spread the word. People are reasonably well off here, and they want to give something back just like you want to give something back.’”
Sarathy proved to be right. All 15 families in Sesay’s soccer team have acted as a bulwark of his efforts in one capacity or another, in both fundraising and raising awareness. In the last six months alone, Sesay and his supporters successfully organized five fundraising events in the South Bay, from a summer soccer camp to carwashes, bake sales and yard sales.
In addition, Sarathy spearheaded the effort to form a 12-member executive council to manage the finances for Give Back to the Children Project. Now, he and the others are in the process of creating a council board of governors to take on the fiduciary responsibilities.
“These are people from all of walks of life, and the only reason they’re there is to help Abdul,” Sarathy says. “Not because I told them to, not because they’re getting a tax write off but because they believe in this cause.”
With all of these efforts, Sesay’s organization was recently able to ship a 40-foot container filled with computers, clothes, books and other supplies for children in Sierra Leone. Shipping alone cost about $10,000, Sarathy says, but a number of unforeseen costs have come up.
“Because it’s a developing country, there’s a whole bunch of tariffs and excise duties and people you have to pay off to get it out to ship,” he explains. “We didn’t realize there was going to be that much money required on the other side.”
The organization is now frantically fundraising for another estimated $8,000 to $10,000, Sarathy says.
Determined to meet the goal, he and others are holding a fundraising event on the evening of Dec. 22 at Abigaile Restaurant in Hermosa Beach.
In the spring of 2007, his final year at Cal Poly, Sesay began having nightmares. At this point, he had not shared his past with a single soul.
“I would hear somebody telling me to go find my mom, saying, ‘Get up, go!’ I felt them hitting my foot,” he says. “But when I woke up, nobody was there.”
He wanted to heed this mysterious force, but he was in the middle of finals. Plus, he didn’t have the money.
Burdened and troubled, Sesay confided in his mentor, Dr. Martin, who at the time was the vice president of student affairs. One phone call led to another. Sesay wrote a personal letter to the university president sharing his story and explaining his predicament. Donations trickled in from friends who were moved by his story. Even his professors were onboard and agreed to let him take his finals after the trip. Within weeks, he found himself on a plane bound for Africa, with the trip sponsored by the athletic department.
He first went to Guinea and combed the area where the refuge camps once stood. No sign of his mother. From there, accompanied by an old friend, he took the bus to Senegal. Then to Liberia. Still, he did not find a single clue as to where his mother could be.
He had been searching for his mother for three weeks, to no avail. With hope, money and time running out, he reluctantly decided to make his last stop in Gambia.
When he and his friend got off the bus, a lady immediately took an interest in Sesay, who was donning his Cal Poly jacket.
“She said, ‘Where are you from? Where are you going?’” he recalls.
He told her that he had come from the States to look for his mother, Marima. He proceeded to describe her as he remembered. The woman was taken aback. She explained that there was a woman in her village by that name. And she was from Sierra Leone. “And she said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go find out.’”
Together, Sesay, his friend and the woman took a cab to the province, about two hours outside of the city. They then walked three miles to the village, trudging along until – “My mother was standing there,” he recalls. “It’s like somebody threw cold water on me. I couldn’t even move. My mom recognized me even though I was grown.”
He also reunited with his sister, who was with their mother at a market when the rebels surged into Freetown that day 15 years ago. He learned that she was raped during their escape.
His mother Marima now resides with Sesay in Hawthorne. When he earned his U.S. citizenship in 2010, he immediately invited his mother – “the most important person of my life,” he says – to come live with him. She arrived last week. His sister is still in Sierra Leone, but he hopes to eventually bring her over as well.
“I can’t wait to come home all the time,” Sesay says, laughing.
He has told her about the Give Back to the Children Project. She, in turn, informed him that Sesay’s high school in Freetown still sits there without a roof – more than decade after the civil war. This further affirmed the need and urgency for his project.
Sesay attributes his passion to help others to his mother. Back in his childhood in Sierra Leone, she always managed to buy an extra loaf of bread for the kids next door, he recalls.
“At that time, I used to get mad,” he says. “‘Why are you buying for them? Their parents are not buying for us!’”
His mother would always respond the same way. “She would tell me, ‘You know what? You go somewhere when I’m not around, someone will take care of you like this.’”
Sesay inherited a patch of land in his hometown from his late father, who was in the process of building a house. It measures at about 2,000 to 2,500 square feet—“not huge, but a start” for the education center he plans to build for youth, he says. For now, Sesay plans to renovate the house and use it as a temporary facility.
“Right now in Sierra Leone, the only library I know is the American Embassy library, and it’s for elites,” he explains. “My goal is to build a place for kids to learn how to use a computer and come to study.”
Of all the help and services that have flooded in, one was that of the department chair of architecture at Los Angeles Harbor College. The two have worked together to conceive a draft of the plan for the center.
With enough fundraising and outreach, Sesay hopes to build the school within the next two years.
“Right now, it’s still very local,” Sarathy says. “We want to make it widely grow into either a regional or national campaign so we’ll have to have some infrastructure set up in place. We’re putting in all the steps slowly.”
Sesay is leaving Saturday for his hometown, where he, alongside his childhood friend and journalist Mohammad Kamara, will work to raise awareness about his project. He will also arrive in time to receive the 40-foot shipment of supplies from the States. He plans to stay for a month.
“[Kamara] is the one that’s doing the groundwork for me in Sierra Leone,” Sesay explains. “He’s getting the word out there.”
And people are apparently hearing about it. Every time Sesay touches base with him, Kamara tells him that he receives a barrage of phone calls every day, all inquiring the same things.
“He tells me that people are asking, ‘When is Abdul coming? When is this thing going to start? We need this!’” Sesay says. “Recently, people are telling him that I need to be a politician.”
But becoming involved in politics is far from Sesay’s mind, at least for now.
“I’m not a politician because a politician would never do anything like this,” he said. “And I told him, ‘I just want to give back. That’s all I want to do.’”
For more information on the Dec. 22 event, contact Prakash Sarathy at email@example.com.