Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Soccer provides escape, hope

It's not easy to understand soft-spoken Adnan Bangura, the newest men's soccer player at Montreat College. His English is broken.

In many ways, so is his heart.

Two years ago, he ducked for cover when rebel soldiers muscled their way into his family's home in Blackhallroad, Sierra Leone. The soldiers demanded money. Bangura's parents had none. Gunfire erupted. The soldiers left.

Bangura's mother, Alimatu, and his father, Ibrahim, were dead.

"There was nothing I could do," Adnan Bangura said, his head shaking sadly, his already quiet voice trailing off to a murmur as he sat beside a beautifully manicured soccer field on a recent afternoon.

Tucked between Guinea and Liberia in northwestern Africa, Sierra Leone is slightly smaller than South Carolina.

Bangura, whose father once played for Sierra Leone's national soccer team, grew up in Blackhallroad in the northwestern corner of the nation.

Civil war raged in Sierra Leone starting in 1991. Though the country's president declared the war officially over in 2002, Bangura said times remain tough.

"The environment there is not very good," said Adnan, who is 17 and has no brothers or sisters. "Living there is very difficult. I'm thinking of the environment and inconveniences. They are not doing good well there."

A friend who knew all too well what Bangura had been going through is Abdul Bangura (no relation), who escaped the same village in Sierra Leone four years ago. He is a sophomore at Montreat and a member of the soccer team.

Abdul met Adnan when both were in primary school. Four years older than Adnan, Abdul took his young friend under his wing and looked after him even when thousands of miles separated them.

"I have a friend over there that I would call, and I asked about Adnan every time," said Abdul, who completed his high school education in Atlanta. "One day, I called and said, 'Look, you have to find him for me please and bring him to the phone.'"

Abdul told the Cavaliers' coaches they could benefit from his fellow countryman. Eager to help, then-head coach Jamath Shoffner and his assistant, Michael Combs, spoke with several people in Blackhallroad. They heard stories about talented young Adnan, who represented his nation last year in the under-17 age division.

Still, offering a scholarship to someone he'd never even seen video of was a bit nerve-racking for Combs.

"It's amazing to give kids like this an opportunity," said Combs, who is now serving as interim head coach while Shoffner plays professionally in Germany. "The No. 1 thing is education, giving these kids a chance at life. We want to set them up to be successful.

"But yes, with Montreat being a national contender in men's soccer, we've got to bring in good athletes. So we were a little uneasy," added Combs, whose team has a 6-2 record.

On the other side of the Atlantic, two busloads of Adnan's townspeople traveled one hour to the Lungi International Airport to see Bangura off as he caught a plane bound for America. Some pride crept into his heart as he looked around the crowd of people who'd come to say goodbye. Mostly, though, he felt sadness.

"I was so sorry because I was leaving for a very long time. I don't know when I come back to my country if they'll still be alive," said Bangura, who received a scholarship and some financial aid that will allow him to play soccer and get an education at Montreat College. "They cried, and I, too, was crying."

In his hometown, Adnan had to walk three miles to get fresh water that he carried back home in a bucket. He ate one meal, usually just rice, each day. He had never seen a computer.

He recognized that great opportunities awaited him in America, but he was apprehensive when he arrived at the Charlotte airport.

"All he had was one bag and a clear folder with all his documents," said Combs. "When he first got off the plane, I watched him holding that folder. He was clasping it like it was the most important thing in the world, like he would never let it go.

"Our admissions officer, Joey Higgins, had told him how important his paperwork is. He told Adnan that if he didn't have his papers, he couldn't come here to school and he couldn't play soccer. I just watched him holding that folder so tight, and that just showed me how important this opportunity is to him."

Less than 24 hours after he arrived, Adnan scored his first goal for his new team. He only played in the final 10 minutes but managed to punch in a shot during the Cavaliers' 2-0 victory over Anderson University.

Uncomfortable as he may be in this strange, new country, there is still one place where Adnan is right at home. After walking slowly away from the interview, he began bouncing the ball on his head.

MyrtleBeachOnline.com | 09/30/2007 | Soccer provides escape, hope