This is part one in a two part series on Buomkuoth Samuel, a rookie with the Chilliwack Huskers who was born in Ethiopia and spent most of his early years in Kenya.
Football is organized chaos.
Every play during a game is meticulously mapped out by the coaches.
Twelve players on offence and 12 on defence are trained to function as one, carrying out assigned tasks with a singular goal.
Move the ball.
Stop the ball.
When all goes as planned, the game has a certain poetic grace to it.
From a distance you can imagine it as a chess game on grass, pieces moving with elegant fluidity.
But always, lurking just below the surface is the chaos.
On every play there are collisions, with clashing players creating G forces that would rival an automobile accident.
With bodies flying from sideline to sideline at high velocity, keeping your head on a swivel isn’t just a suggestion. It’s a necessity, lest you lose it.
Football is chaos.
Buomkuoth Samuel is OK with chaos.
You want real chaos?
Try Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, home to a civil war that left anywhere from 230,000 to 1.4 million (depending on who you believe) dead.
Ethiopians killing Ethiopians and Rome’s bread basket left a barren, desolate and famine-ravaged wasteland. This is what Buomkuoth was born into.
This is what his parents wisely fled from when they moved their family to Kenya, following thousands of their countrymen to the Hagadera refugee camp.
You want real chaos?
Try being there.
Try living in a place where you have to worry about hyenas dragging off the livestock, and maybe the children.
“Sometimes, the goats would make a hole that nobody noticed, and the hyenas would come through,” Buomkuoth said. “They would come around 12 o’clock, and parents made sure every kid went to sleep before that.”
The Kenyan government of the day allowed Ethiopians to live within its borders, but otherwise didn’t do much to help.
Families received food (grains, oil, beans and vegetables) that was meant to last six months. With careful rationing, it could last three.
The family could have breakfast and dinner, but lunch was a foreign concept and hunger was constant.
“We all shared breakfast and then it was eight hours till we got home,” Buomkuoth said. “But in the camp we had a lot of family, kind of tribes, and we shared a lot. That’s the only reason why a lot of people were able to last six months until the next food. If you didn’t have anybody, you were going to suffer.”
Buomkuoth and his family were fortunate in that, from time to time, they could escape from Hagadera.
Financial aid from family friends and hard work by his parents allowed them to rent a house or apartment in Nairobi so the children could go to school.
“I’ve never asked them how they did it, but my parents somehow were able to manage saving money and stuff like that,” Buomkuoth said. “I knew the way to make them proud was to go to school and learn something, because they wanted our lives to be different.”
Education was a blessing, but it carried a cost beyond the monetary.
“We’d all wake up at 7 a.m. and walk to school, and if you don’t make it on time, you’d get beat,” he recalled. “Girls had to go on their knees with their hands out. Guys have to lay flat and get whooped on the bum. If you were late even one minute, you were getting beat.”
Many days, kids had valid reasons for being late. Every time they stepped away from the safety of home, they faced danger.
“Anywhere we went, we went, we would be in trouble if we didn’t go with our parents or an older cousin that they really trusted,” he said. “If you walked by yourself you had to watch every direction, behind you and in front of you, sides. Someone might chuck a rock at you or something.”
If it wasn’t thieves, it was other kids, resentful of anyone with enough money to attend school.
“Some people were mad if you went to school. They thought, ‘He’s all rich now because he’s going to school,’” Buomkuoth said. “Some kids would jump you and your parents would never see you again. They’d kill you or take you somewhere and make you their slave.”
In a lawless country run by a corrupt and ineffective government, there were dozens of ways to die on a 30 minute walk to school.
“Everyone’s driving 140 (kilometres per hour) on the road, and if someone’s trying to cross they will not stop, because time is money,” Buomkuoth said. “And if someone gets run over, no one cares. Maybe 10 cars will pass and run the same person over. Maybe later a family person will come along later. One time I walked on the road and whoa, I never heard the end of it.”
Had Buomkuoth and his family remained in Kenya, it seemed only a matter of time until tragedy would befall them.
And so, as a new decade dawned the family made their second major move.
Their name was randomly drawn from a government database — an emigration lottery of sorts — and they were given the opportunity to leave and go anywhere in the United States or Canada.
Early in 2000, knowing barely any English, Buomkuoth found himself on an airplane bound for Toronto’s Pearson International Airport
His mom, Nyalew Kuek, bundled the kids up in far more clothing than they wanted to wear and listened patiently as they complained.
“We were wearing so much stuff, we could barely breathe,” Buomkuoth recalled. “But some of the people told us if we didn’t wear it, our ears would fall off.”
The airplane landed safely and the family was hustled onto a bus that would take them to immigrant housing.
It was cold, and as 10-year-old Buomkuoth gawked out the window he saw snow.
“And I ask my mom, ‘What’s that?’ She says it’s snow and it’s really cold, but I thought she was lying,” Buomkuoth said. “I looked again and said, ‘Mom. Why is there sugar everywhere? It’s free sugar in Canada!”