Kei Kamara's American Dream: From Refugee to Soccer Star

As a teen, he fled war-torn Sierra Leone in search of a better life. Now, after a breakout MLS season, Kamara has finally found it – in Ohio

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Kei Kamara; MLS SuperDraft
Kei Kamara of the Columbus Crew. Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire/Corbis

Snow blankets the yard outside Kei Kamara's suburban Ohio home, the one with the white Range Rover in the driveway (license plate: "KK 23"). On this frigid February afternoon, the Columbus Crew SC striker is inside enjoying a rare moment of repose, dressed casually in athletic gear and a man bun that adds at least an inch to his 6-foot-3 frame.

His wife, Kristin Bock Kamara, is in the basement helping their baby daughter learn to walk. Eight-month-old Kierin's first steps yesterday coincided with a torn ACL for their spaniel/shepherd mix Chelsea – yes, she's named after Kamara's favorite soccer club – but that's not stopping the dog from exuberantly hobbling around the living room, mimicking her master's endless energy supply. (Chelsea also has her own Twitter account; bio: "Am A Crazy Bitch, now pet me!!!!!!") A European soccer match is on TV. Around the corner, the fridge is stocked with seven or eight types of soda and one measly bottle of Heineken. "I'm more of a pop guy," he explains.

It's the last day of a week at home between two preseason trips down south. Traveling the world has long been the norm: When he was 14, Kamara fled war-torn Sierra Leone and settled in Gambia, then immigrated to the U.S. at age 16. During a two-year stretch early in his career, trades sent him shuffling from Columbus to San Jose to Houston to Kansas City. Soccer keeps him so busy that in 2014, he and Kristin scheduled their wedding during World Cup group play because it was the only week he was guaranteed not to have playing commitments. "We didn't even have a honeymoon," Kristin says, "we just packed up our bags and flew to England and started the preseason."

Aside from his globetrotting lifestyle, Kamara has always been a diffuse, outgoing person. "I grew up in a really big family," he says, his elbows perched on a high-top table overlooking his living room. "So because of that I feel so close to everyone." But beginning a family of his own has centered him. "It was all meant to be," he says. "I've been around kids – and I've been a kid – my whole life. And having one now, what I miss about it is how much time I have to spend away from the house."

Kamara lives this idyllic life half a world away from his hometown. It sometimes feels like a different planet entirely, and not just because it never snows in Sierra Leone. Growing up, Kamara faced the constant threat of violence, robbery or being recruited as a child soldier. He lived in a house with several dozen siblings, half-siblings, cousins and neighbors, the son of a polygamous family in a tightly knit community. His father was out of the picture, and his mother moved to America when he was six with the hope of preparing the way for more relatives to follow, so his aunt looked after him. It wasn't a bad life at first.

"There was nothing wrong," Kamara remembers. "We just were so happy playing soccer on the street – because that's the number one thing: soccer on the street, soccer at recess at school. It's the memory that's stuck in your head every day, just with your friends. Until the first attack happened."

There's a dissonance to hearing Kamara describe guerrilla warfare while seated in a four-bedroom, five-bathroom house in a squeaky-clean neighborhood where such a thing seems impossible – especially because until it happened, such a thing also seemed impossible in Kenema, Sierra Leone's third largest city and a major player in the country's diamond mining industry. Yet thanks to widespread corruption in Joseph Momoh's government and a deeply unethical diamond trade, Sierra Leone had become one of the world's poorest nations by 1991. So a rebel army called the Revolutionary United Front rose up and attempted to take their country by force, initiating an 11-year civil war that killed more than 50,000.

"This was when my mom had just left," Kamara says. "That's when we heard the first explosion. We heard rumors that the rebels were going to attack – 'They're coming to the biggest cities.' Because the whole time they were in villages. As kids, you don't take that seriously until we had to vacate school. We were just running home and that was just it. Ten, twelve years kind of went by really quick." During that interim Kamara endured so many traumatic experiences that it's a wonder he's such a vibrant personality today. "It was really vivid," he says. "It's nothing I would ever wish on any kid. You're just in these places and seeing things that normal kids don't see, whether it was assassinations or brutal beatings or lootings or breaking in and burning down stores or people's houses, we saw all those things as kids."

Not long after he finishes describing the horrors of his youth, Kamara's own child emerges from the basement, safely cradled in her mother's arms en route to an afternoon nap. Kierin enjoys a level of security, wealth and opportunity her father was never afforded in Sierra Leone. But Kamara isn't hoarding the good life for himself. He's become someone with resources to help heal the damage in his home country rather than flee from it. His extensive charity work – including building a school back home with fellow Sierra Leone refugee-turned-MLS soccer player Michael Lahoud ­– earned him the 2015 MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year Award and the FIFPro Merit Award. In simple human terms, his life is a resounding success.

Kei Kamara; MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year Award
Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire/Corbis

Professionally, though, that kind of resolution has remained elusive. Throughout a decade in Major League Soccer (and a brief detour in England's Football League Championship), Kamara has soldiered his way from journeyman footnote to MVP finalist, yet at age 31 he still hasn't hoisted a championship trophy. In fact, his teams have a tendency to win titles right after he leaves. After beginning his career with two disappointing seasons in Columbus, Kamara moved on from the Crew in late 2007 only to watch them win MLS Cup the following year. He bounced around the league for a couple seasons before finding his rhythm – and his wife – in Kansas City. But again, just months after Kamara left MLS to join English club Middlesbrough in 2013, Sporting KC won it all. The pattern grates on Kamara; without a championship, his career feels incomplete.

"I won't lie," he says. "I need one to really feel like I'm not cursed."

He came maddeningly close last season. Released from his contract at Middlesbrough and unable to obtain a work permit to sign with Wolverhampton, in late 2014 Kamara returned to MLS, where his original club Columbus had first priority in the allocation rankings and was desperate for a goal-scorer. "We were creating a lot of goal-scoring opportunities off a lot of crosses, and we needed the right person to finish off the attacks," head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter remembers. Kamara turned out to be that person, tying for the league lead in goals (he tallied 22) on the way to the MLS Cup final at Mapfre Stadium in front of an ecstatic home crowd. Everything was set up for a storybook ending. But Columbus choked magnificently against the Portland Timbers, conceding farcical goals in the first and seventh minutes and never fully recovering.

"It was so early," Kamara says, looking back on Portland's early scores. "In soccer, it's really a wake-up call. Nobody wants to score that early in games because usually you fall asleep after getting a couple goals. So I knew for sure we were going to get back into it." And they did: Kamara, playing with an unspecified right leg injury, managed to will Columbus back to 2-1 with a goal in the 18th minute. Scoring renewed his optimism: "It was a lifeline to say, 'We got this. There's no way we're going to lose at home.'"

But Columbus did lose. No matter what they tried, they couldn't come up with another goal. Although he didn't reveal it until after MLS Cup, Kamara was seriously considering retiring if the Crew had come away victorious. Instead, he was left to lie on the grass in disbelief and watch the Timbers hoist the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on his home field. That image of her husband sprawled on the field stuck with Kristin – "Sitting in the stands and watching him sit there on the field was heartbreaking," she recalls – but the next thing she saw left an ever deeper impression. "Once he came off the field...yeah, it still hurt, but he was like, 'OK. We're gonna move on.'"

But before things could move forward, Kamara wanted to restructure his contract with the Crew. He made $536,666 last year – high by MLS standards, but low compared to the league's elite. For context, Kamara made less than half of teammate Federico Higuain's $1.175 million salary, and they were both dwarfed by MVP winner Sebastian Giovinco of Toronto, who pulled down $7 million. After tying Giovinco in goals and joining him among last year's MVP finalists, Kamara was looking to be rewarded handsomely. At the time of our interview, negotiations were still ongoing, though Kamara felt confident something would get worked out.

"I'm in the preseason working hard and staying focused, because I want to be doing the same thing I did last year," he says. "I came back to Columbus because I want to be in Columbus."

He was right to be optimistic: Eventually he and the Crew would settle on a new deal that made him a Designated Player (per the "Beckham Rule" that allows MLS players to be paid above the salary cap) and secured him an annual salary of at least $1 million through 2018.

Even if contract talks had gone sour, Kamara likely would have found a way to come out ahead. When he's knocked down, he tends to bounce back higher than before, perhaps because he's lived through circumstances much heavier than getting benched or losing a championship game. This is a guy who survived a bloody civil war, risked his life by fleeing with relatives on a boat to Gambia, showed up morning after morning at a lottery to enter a refugee program, flew across the Atlantic to a foreign land, settled in Southern California with a mother he barely knew, finished four years of high school in two years to secure a college soccer scholarship at Cal State Dominguez Hills and played his way to a first-round pick in the MLS SuperDraft.

Kei Kamara; MLS SuperDraft
Alex Menendez/Getty

Having come that far just to get his foot in the door, it's no wonder Kamara has persevered through so many career setbacks. The real surprise is that he's remained a buoyant presence through it all. The methodical coach Berhalter explains Kamara's locker room presence as if describing an alien being: "Kei's a fun-loving guy, a little bit free-spirited, and I think just overall brings a positive attitude to the group – [he's] a little bit outside of your typical athlete; a little bit looser than most people, just really enjoying every day."

His friend Lahoud, who fled Sierra Leone at age 6, first experienced Kamara's free spirit during an offseason pickup game in L.A. about seven years ago, when Lahoud was playing for Chivas U.S.A. and Kamara was with Houston. "I'm a reserved dude," Lahoud says, "and this guy comes up to me, and he starts speaking our language in Sierra Leone, Krio. And I haven't heard anyone speak Krio to me outside of my family since I moved to the U.S., so I didn't really engage him. I thought he was crazy." Things didn't go much differently when Kamara attempted the same tactic on the pitch during an MLS match. "Off goal kicks and corner kicks, he would come over and mark me and then start talking Krio again. I'm like, 'Dude, stop talking to me! We're on different teams!' That's Kei to a T. He's laser-sharp focused, but he loves to have fun during the games, almost like a social club out on the field."

Eventually Lahoud let his guard down and formed a close bond with Kamara, one that positioned them as a force for change in Sierra Leone. The two had been doing separate charity work for years, Kamara giving out scholarships through his Heart Shaped Hands Foundation and Lahoud organizing various fundraisers. Separately, they got involved with Schools For Salone, whose founder Cindy Nofziger contacted them about working together in 2014. "What she didn't know was playing with the national team allowed Kei and I time to really get to know each other and see that we valued the same thing when it comes to giving back to Sierra Leone," Lahoud says. "We sat down over lunch one day in Freetown before a national team game and just kind of asked each other, 'Why aren't we working together?'"

Kamara and Lahoud began directing their fundraising efforts towards the construction of a school in Allen Town, just east of Freetown. The Kei Kamara/Mike Lahoud Education for All Primary School broke ground last May and classes started in September, and Kamara was able to visit in January. "It raised some goosebumps," he says. "I wasn't doing it to get recognized or anything. I was just doing it because I'm a big kid. I'm a happy kid. And if I'm happy all the time and I can make somebody else happy, then I enjoy it."

Kamara routinely describes himself as an overgrown child. Kristin agrees; her first memory of Kei is watching him goof around with kids at a park cleanup in Kansas City when she was working for Sporting KC. Helping children has always been his passion. So when the recent hot topic of refugees and immigration comes up, Kamara quickly directs attention to children who have nothing to do with terrorist attacks, civil wars or Donald Trump. "Everybody wants to come to America," he says. "But obviously it's tough to just open the doors so everyone can come to America because of safety. But at the same time, we have to look out for the future, and the future is really the kids."

Kamara can't control U.S. immigration policy, but he can help kids the world over. This year he plans to refocus on his work through Heart Shaped Hands, with an aim to renovate existing Sierra Leone schools. On the home front, he's beginning to raise his own daughter. And yes, besides the business of changing the world one child at a time, there's a soccer season to prepare for. Kamara's next campaign to become a champion begins Sunday in Portland against the defending champion Timbers. He's feeling optimistic: "For you to have the same starting 11 from the Cup final coming back, it's key. We played so well through the whole season, and we basically have the same team and are adding some really good pieces to the puzzle. So I think our chances are really good."

What's to come after this season is less certain: Play out his new contract? Get into coaching? One idea Kamara can't shake is to explore the entertainment business. He's been talking with Kristin about taking some acting classes, and she confirms he's serious about his desire to follow his tenure on the pitch with a career on the stage and screen.

"It's funny to say, really, but I want to be like Arnold [Schwarzenegger], you know? Being here, coming to America and just achieving everything that he has achieved," Kamara says, grinning. "It's America. Anything's possible."

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