When my mother and I stepped onto Canadian soil in 2006, the only English words I knew were “pass” and “here,” words learned not from books but from a love affair.
The seductress who had me in thrall was soccer, or as the sport is known in other parts of the world, football.
Football gave me more than a few words. It gave me joy. Days turned into late nights dribbling a ball around the neighbourhood. The crannies of our apartment became the victims of rocket shots, a crowd of one jeering from the kitchen: “Crazy kid! That’s my good vase!”
In football I charted the map of my life.
One of my few memories of my father is him explaining to me the genius of Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos.
My first contact with my Canadian classmates on my first day of school in a new country was through a sloppy drawing I made of Zidane’s infamous headbutt on Materazzi.
My new friends understood it as a shy boy’s plea to belong. And I’ve been seeking belonging ever since.
One day, at 18, I was riding the subway home. I stood near the doors, looking out at the rain. I saw my reflection and had a moment of clarity. I would chase my football dreams.
Not having played since I was a child, I had a tall mountain to climb. I found a coach via Kijiji, signed up at a gym and began to train. It was gruelling at first, but I began to see improvement.
I decided that in order to find myself as a player I had to find my home again. That little pocket of land in eastern Africa. Eritrea.
The moment the plane touched down at Asmara International Airport, I suddenly missed my mother’s cooking. I missed my friends. I missed Toronto winters, the same ones I loved to complain about.
I stayed with my uncle and his family. It was a different world. The power would go out for days on end. Water would run short.
My new teammates, scrappy kids from all corners of Asmara, were young men playing for pennies and pride. Their welcome was cool.
But as we trained in the mud and rain for hours a day, and went for ceremonial tea after each practice, we began to bond.
Football is a game of the poor and I rediscovered its true form on the streets of Africa. I was inspired by teammates arriving on bikes, stomachs empty, for morning practice. They came to believe in me.
They ran across that dirt pitch with me, welcomed me into their paradise, broke bread with me in a shabby cafe.
I was nearing 21. My game was at its peak. I won my first man-of-the-match, chosen by my teammates and coaches. I was playing regularly.
But on my 21st birthday, when I wasn’t selected for the national team, I knew my time in Eritrea was up. I left for Ethiopia. No luck. I tried Sweden. No better. It was time to go home to Canada.
The moment I entered the familiar Toronto apartment I felt blessed to be with my mother again. But I had to find a new dream.
The search led me to Humber College and the possibilities of journalism.
Just as in football, where a player is a vehicle for the thousands whose dreams he carries, a journalist can be the vehicle for the thousands who wish to be heard.
Now, instead of reaching the stars with a ball on my foot, I aim for them, instead, with a notebook and pen.