Doha Debates– Don't settle for a Divided World
Podcast / November 10 2022

A soccer star gives back to Sierra Leone

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When Michael Lahoud was six years old, he fled civil war in Sierra Leone and came to the United States. He felt scared and alone. But with help from his favorite sport—soccer—Lahoud was able to make friends, find a community and earn a college scholarship. Years later, while playing professionally in the United States, Lahoud was approached by a stranger, who asked him, “How would you like to change the world?” For Lahoud, the answer was simple. He decided to build a school in Sierra Leone and use his platform as a professional soccer player to make sure that what happened in his home country never happens again.

Full Transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.

 

IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:

I grew up in a household with a parent who is an educator. And so, in our family, as much as we all love sport and wanted to be on the field, my mom was the one who made sure that, you know, we all had the grades and, essentially, stayed on task in terms of our education. And I’ve always been really aware of the gift I’ve had in growing up with a mom who is in education. Having the opportunity to travel as a sports ambassador for the US, and even just as an athlete, we travel so much so often, you see that, you know, there are a lot of kids out there, a lot of communities who, you know, don’t have the same access that people in the US have access to. And the statistics are there. We know that when women and girls have access to sport and education, it changes communities from the inside out. 

 

From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.

 

KAREN GIVEN: And I’m executive producer Karen Given. Today, we’re going to share my interview with Michael Lahoud. Since March of 2021, Michael has been a broadcaster for the MLS club Austin FC.

 

NEWSCLIP OF MICHAEL LAHOUD SPEAKING OVER CHEERING CROWD:

Moussa just reacts quicker. Look at the technique.

 

KAREN: But we didn’t invite Michael on to the show to talk about his job behind the mic or his seven seasons as a player in the MLS. We called him to hear about this.

 

SIERRA LEONEAN CHILDREN:

[SINGING] “Firmly united, ever we stand…”

 

KAREN: This is the sound of the flag being raised at Education for All. It’s a school for underserved children in Allentown. That’s a neighborhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Back in 2015, Michael and fellow Sierra Leone national team player Kei Kamara raised $50,000 to sponsor the school.

 

IBTIHAJ: Michael’s story is so unique, in finding a sport that he loves and having an opportunity to play professionally. Having the opportunity to, to use, you know, his resources to give back to his community and help to change the lives of so many young children in Sierra Leone, I think, is such a cool opportunity. And really there’s no greater gift than the gift of health and education, especially to underserved and underprivileged communities.

 

KAREN: But building a school was only part of Michael’s journey, as he explored what it meant to be a refugee, a Sierra Leonean and an advocate for investment in Africa. It all started with a conversation Michael had with a stranger in a hotel lobby in 2010. Here’s Michael.

 

MICHAEL: It was my second year playing professional soccer, and the team I was playing for, Chivas USA, we went up to Seattle, Washington to play against probably the best team in the league, Seattle Sounders. And I’m sitting at this hotel lobby somewhere, downtown Seattle, and this woman comes up and said, “Hey, are you Michael Lahoud?” I was like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “I’d like to talk with you.” So we sit down, and before I could even get comfortable, she just said, “How would you like to change the world?” 

 

No one had ever asked me that question. I didn’t even know I—that was an option for me. I was 22. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] That almost, like, penetrated my soul. Her name was Cindy Nofziger. She told me a bit about her story, about being in the Peace Corps and going to Sierra Leone. And she had asked me if I’d ever gone back. And I was like, “No.” I hadn’t been back since I moved here from Sierra Leone. And rather than telling me anything more, she brought out a book, and she gave it to me. And it was a book called A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. She said, “Read this book, and if you’d still like to change the world, give me a call.” That is the greatest sales pitch I’ve ever had in my life. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] I know VP of sales and people—none of them have ever done anything like that. So I go and read this book, and it tells the story of what my life would have been had I not left Sierra Leone. The gist of it was this young man who was only a couple of years older than me and becomes a child soldier. The only thing that really saves his life is education.

 

KAREN: As you mentioned, you lived in Sierra Leone. You left when you were six. What do you remember of your life there?

 

MICHAEL: Um, it’s spotty. There’s, there’s this reoccurring image. I could even close my eyes now, and—it’s water. It’s waterfalls. Being in the mountains; being, kind of, in the precipice of the city, and the jungle. You know, I remember playing soccer—football, as they call it—down in our village. I remember just being in this intimate community where everyone knew you. Everyone knew you, your aunts, your uncles, your grandparents. There was—it was just this feeling of being known in a really profound way.

 

KAREN: And do you have any memories of being aware that there was a civil war happening?

 

MICHAEL: No. Absolutely not. My—the one thing that, as I look back on it—both of my parents left Sierra Leone before I did. So, my biological dad went first, and my biological mom went after. And they went three years apart. And so I grew up with my grandparents. And I remember when I was about three years old, my grandma—I could feel she was getting a little bit overprotective. And so she would say, “Hey, don’t go too deep into the jungle, or else the boogeyman will get you.”

 

KAREN: And when your grandmother said “the boogeyman,” she didn’t mean some horror flick. She had something specific in mind, right?

 

MICHAEL: Yeah, it was the rebels. They were taking child soldiers. They were taking kids my age—anywhere from five, six—to 18. They were injecting them with drugs; heroin. These kids would be hallucinating and not even aware of what they were doing. And they would—they would give them a choice. They would line up all the adults. They would say, “If you don’t kill your parents, we’ll kill you.” Six years old. That was—that was what was waiting for me if I went the wrong way; if I got lost in the jungle. That was the reality of my village. I know in my heart that if I hadn’t left Sierra Leone, I would not be alive today.

 

KAREN: So one day you were sitting at your desk at school, and your grandmother showed up. Did you know that something was up right away?

 

MICHAEL: Yeah, I’m—I’m a pretty empathic person. And—I remember the day, going to school, and it was one of those days where—you ever go to work, or you ever wake up and you’re like, “Something just doesn’t feel right today?” And I had that feeling going to school. And I thought it was, well, it’s because it’s the biggest exam of the year. And so I’m in this exam. I couldn’t focus, and I—I felt—almost this detachment from reality. And out of left field, the door just—boom, opens. My grandma walks in—more like runs in—grabs me, and we’re gone. 

 

We’re running back to our village. It’s anywhere from a mile and a half to two and a half miles. And mind you, this is from the memory of a six-year-old me. But it felt like forever. And she didn’t say a word. She just was moving, like the wind. And when I got home, no one told me anything. It was just chaos. It was pandemonium. People were shouting, people were yelling. People were in tears, where I didn’t know what, what to do. And my great grandma, she pulled me aside and she said, “Hey, everything’s going to be OK. You’re, you’re going on holiday to America.” And that’s the last memory I have of my great grandma, because what I did not know was that I’d just gotten an emergency visa, and I—if I didn’t leave that day, I would never be allowed to leave. And I was the only one in our village, I was the only one in our family who got the visa, who qualified for it. Because my mom and dad had gone to the States before me, and they put in a lottery and I won the lottery. And then, before I knew it, my uncle showed up, Uncle Habib. And there are two ways to get to the airport: driving, then there was taking the ferry. And that’s when it was the first sign of war I’d ever seen in my life. The look of terror on people’s faces, and everyone was just in panic. And I remember seeing my uncle get a gun drawn on him. Having a soldier scream at him, saying, “If you—if you get on this ferry, I’ll kill you.” And that was the first time I felt this absolute shock, like my world has just been turned upside down.

 

KAREN: Habib didn’t have a visa, and the soldier wouldn’t let him on the ferry without one. So Habib handed his six-year-old nephew over to one of the soldiers. And from that moment on, Michael made the journey to the United States on his own.

 

MICHAEL: There’s a part of my story that I’ve never been able to tap into where it’s—have you ever seen the movie Memento?

 

KAREN: Yeah.

 

MICHAEL: If you’ve ever seen the movie Memento—it’s one of my favorite movies, and I resonate with it because it’s someone who’s trying to piece together: “What just happened, how did I get here?” So that scene with my uncle, fade to black. I don’t know how I got to the airport, but I do know that I’m on this plane by myself, and we’re going to Paris, to Charles de Gaulle Airport. And we land there, and I remember just getting out and walking. I didn’t know anything. I just thought, “Oh, well, we all must be going this way.” That’s when it all hit me. “I’m on my own. I don’t—where’s my family? Where’s my uncle? How did I get here? What just happened?” And I freaked out. I—I—it was almost the— like, almost like having a panic attack. I just start freaking out. Until this day, when I go to Charles de Gaulle, I have moments where I’m rooted. And I have to take a deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath. Almost like you’re swimming underwater. And then I—it was almost like the touch of an angel. I kid you not. I felt a hand over my shoulder, and it was the flight attendant. So she guides me to this terminal where the fight’s leaving. Fade to black. We land, we get to Dulles Airport. And now, there’s a different feeling. There’s, “OK, well, this is still scary. I’m going to go out, and we’ve done this before, right? OK. There’s more people. People that don’t look like me. Just follow the procession. You did that last time, right?” So I just start walking, and I’m on the concourse. And it’s just cars.

 

[FOREBODING SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]

 

And then that fear comes again. And that’s when I freaked out. That’s when I started feeling, “Oh, my gosh, I got to get home. This is not my home.” And I kid you not, the thought that I had—I’ve actually never shared this before. It was, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to die. I’ve come all this way. I don’t—I’m so far away from home. I’m going to die.” 

 

And out of the blue, this station wagon goes right by. And I see this woman coming up to me. And I’m looking—and I’d seen pictures of my mom and my dad, but it was an image. So the idea of “mom and dad” were just that. They were just an idea. And so I see this woman, and the closer she gets, I just start thinking, “Well, this could go one of two ways. [LAUGHS] Either that woman really knows me, or this is how it all ends.” And thank God it was my mom.

 

KAREN: Oh, my God. [MICHAEL LAUGHS] I mean, they must have been driving around looking for you, right?

 

MICHAEL: I suppose so. I—I don’t think we’ve ever even really talked about it. I’ve only tapped into some of this stuff after going to years of therapy, because there’s still some of that trauma that—that looms and comes back. And prior to working with therapists, if you’d asked me, “When did your life begin?” I would have said, “When I woke up one morning and went to school, in second grade, here in the United States.” Because that is the first vivid memory that I have, where I feel like my feet are on the ground, and now I’m walking within my story. And that’s—I was eight years old.

 

KAREN: So tell me about that eight-year-old boy. He’s a refugee living in the US, going to school. What is all of that like?

 

MICHAEL: Oh, um—lonely. [LAUGHS] I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. And there was this disorientation, and this expectation to assimilate and adapt. And just—I felt like I was thrown in this story that wasn’t my own. English. I studied English in Sierra Leone. I wasn’t confident speaking it. I spoke with an accent. So, I go to school, and I just remember being sick to my stomach that first day of school, because—it wasn’t the first time I’d gone to school. I went to this other school called Little Run Elementary School, and I—I, like, shut down. It was just too much to handle, being back in a school environment. Mind you, it was where I left. That was my last memory of life at peace in Sierra Leone. Came from school. And so it was traumatic, being—sitting in a chair. I couldn’t sit still, and it was awful. And then I got really sick. And so for a year, my first year in the States—I got so sick, it was almost like amnesia, where it’s blocked out in my mind. And so, at eight years old—and  was so nervous, because it was like, “Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh.” Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety. 

 

I came right at recess. “Go out to recess. Go play. Welcome to America!” [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] And I was mortified. It was, “Who are these people? Are they even going to like me? Do I even like them? How did I get here again?” All these things going through my mind. I’m, like, hiding within my own body at this point, just rooted to the ground. 

 

And then the best worst thing happens. A tennis ball gets thrown to the wall and falls my way. The school I went to, everyone loved wall ball. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] If you’re an 80s or 90s kid, you know wall ball, and it was, like, competitive elementary school wall ball going on. The ball rolls to me, and all the kids kind of look. One of them goes, “Ah, it’s the new kid! Hey, new kid! Throw the ball.” I’d never thrown a tennis ball before in my life. I didn’t—I’d never seen a tennis ball. I was like, “It’s got yellow. It’s got ‘Wilson’ on it. Who’s Wilson?” So I’m standing, looking at the ball, looking at them. “New kid! Just throw the ball!” Looking at the ball, looking at them. This kid, platinum blond hair, runs up and goes, “Hey, what’s your name?” And I said, “Oh, Michael.” He said, “You going to throw the ball?” And I was so scared to say anything else, because I had already said my name’s Michael. It’s like, “Oops, I said too much.” He just was like, “All right, well.” So he runs back. And I didn’t know how to throw a ball, but I knew how to do one thing: kick a ball. Because I grew up playing soccer. So I just juggle the ball up, throw it in the air and punt it. And I punted it all the way on the roof. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] And I thought, “Uh oh.” [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] “That was not supposed to happen. Oh, no, I just ruined everything. Start going home. You shouldn’t have done this. This is the worst thing you could do.” And the last thing that I ever expected happened. You just hear, “Whoaaaaa! Oh, my gosh! No one’s ever done that before!” And so that same kid comes, he goes, “Michael, right?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” He goes, “My name’s Jack. You’re going to be my best friend.” And not only did he—did I become his best friend, he took me home to meet his family. [MICHAEL LAUGHS]

 

KAREN: Wow.

 

MICHAEL: So I went home and met the Wolfs. And that was my first day of school. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH]

 

KAREN: Did you immediately feel the relief, or did it take a while to realize this was going to be OK?

 

MICHAEL: Immediate relief. It was the first time I felt welcomed. It reminded me of home. It reminded me of home, because we did that. People in my village did that. That was the first time I felt safe. From the moment I left my classroom in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to the moment I got in that house, it was the first time I felt safe.

 

IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. 

 

[LIVELY INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]

 

IBTIHAJ: And now back to our interview.

 

KAREN: So as you continue to get older, kicking balls—though generally a soccer ball [LAUGHS]—

 

MICHAEL [CHUCKLES]: Yeah, yeah.

 

KAREN: —continued to be important in your life. So how did soccer help you adjust to your new life here in the US?

 

MICHAEL: So here I was with Jack, and every day, we’d be—we’d go to school, and then go home to their house and just play. And it was just the two of us playing every day. We would have the most epic one-v-one battles in the front yard. And then as we got older, we took it in the streets. If you brought a ball and put it between us, we, we still compete until this day. We played and played. And then Jack’s dad Jeff talks to, you know, my mom and says, “Hey, do you want to have him play soccer?” So that sounds cool. And it was familiar, because that reminded me of home. We would sit on the veranda in, in our village, and I would look down—and I was so young, you know, I was probably three or four—I would look down and I would see all these people playing, big kids. And I would just follow the ball. And just had an eye for where the ball was going to go. And I remember—I vividly remember that, as a kid, that young, in Sierra Leone. So here’s this family that reminds me of home, and here’s this sport that’s grounding, that’s like, “OK, I’m not alone. I’m not this outsider. I belong.” 

 

I started excelling in soccer. And I remember it was Jack who, who really pushed me to, to work hard. We then became captains of our team, senior year. It was right before our spring season, and the phone at the house was going off the hook, because coaches were calling. I was overwhelmed with all these decisions that I was now having to make. Deep down, I just wanted to play soccer. I had no clue how unique and how special it was to potentially go get a college education, and, and potentially do that as a student athlete. 

 

So I get this scholarship offer to go to Wake Forest University, and I wasn’t sure. I was like, “Ah, do I even want to go? Like, I just want to play soccer. And they’re going to ask me to do the thing I hate: homework. Mmm. I don’t really know about that.” And so Jack and I went for a run. It’s freezing cold in the D.C. area. And we’re—he’s in shorts and a t-shirt, and I’m bundled up like I’m going to Patagonia. And I just am, like, “I don’t want to do this. Like, ugh, like we’re seniors. Shouldn’t we be having fun? Isn’t that what seniors do? You just have fun. You just kind of take it easy. You’ve put in all the hard work.” And so, as we’re running, he just stops and he goes, “You have no clue how unique of an opportunity you have.” And he just calls me out. And there’s probably a bunch of expletives in there, knowing Jack. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] But he calls me out. He said, “Not many of us are going to have this chance to continue playing. For a lot of us, this is our last chance. And it pisses me off that you’re just taking that for granted.” I just remember standing there, just almost like a gut punch, but in a good way. Having one of your peers and having your best friend tell you, “You have what it takes to do something different. We believe in you. Are you willing to put in the work? Because here’s an opportunity of a lifetime.” 

 

So I remember running—and running just a little bit faster. Going to class and studying just a little bit more. And giving one percent to every single aspect of my life, just one percent more, ever since that conversation. It changed my life.

 

KAREN: It’s such an interesting moment, because I had assumed, knowing that you went to Wake Forest and it’s such a good school, that you had this huge commitment to education, and that’s why you wanted to—to sponsor a school in Sierra Leone.

 

MICHAEL [LAUGHING]: Ohhh, no—

 

KAREN: No, huh?

 

MICHAEL [LAUGHING]: No, no, no, no, no. Even in high school, I just hated homework. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] So when I got to Wake Forest, I was like, “Ugh, OK. I did what I had to do. I really grinded, really put in the work. Now I can get back to what I want, which is just play soccer.”

 

Soccer had always been my out. It was the way I was going to get out of Sierra Leone. It was the way I was going to get out of war. It was the way I was going to get out of not having friends when I first moved here. It was the way that I was going to get out to wherever the horizon was, and I cast my net. Until I get to this place, I’ll never be safe. Soccer is my way. And so I get to college, and now there’s these things called rules that you have to abide by.

 

KAREN: You’d have to go to class.

 

MICHAEL: Yeah, I thought I was just going to go play soccer. Like, we talked about this soccer thing. Formations, tactics. And so I, I struggled my freshman year. On the field, I thrived. I would put in extra work. I was doing it as if my life depended on it. 

 

KAREN: Yeah.

 

MICHAEL: It wasn’t an option for me. Going to class was an option. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH]  In my mind, at least.

 

KAREN: So connect that for me. How did someone who didn’t really value education in his own life, always, then say, “I want to build a school for kids in Sierra Leone”?

 

MICHAEL: Oh, it’s a great question. When your head coach says, “If you don’t go to class or if you don’t value education, I will pull the—the ripcord on your soccer career,” you start going to class. For a kid who was school-averse, class-averse, rules-averse, I ended up finishing Wake Forest University with a degree in mathematics, a degree in Spanish. And if I would have stayed, I would’ve had a third degree in sociology. 

 

When Cindy—when I met her and she asked that question, “How would you like to change the world?”, it was as if my past and my present came hurling together. And the book she gave me—A Long  Way Gone by Ishmael Beah—it answered something for me. It gave me a “why.” Why I had to leave. No one had ever told me why I had to leave. Why couldn’t I stay in Sierra Leone? Why did I have to go through all of this? And I finally had my first “why.” And I felt so connected and tied to it that I called Cindy and I said, “I want to use my platform as a professional soccer player to make sure what happened in Sierra Leone never happens again.” And she said, “You made the right phone call. Let me tell you about Schools for Salone.”

 

KAREN: Wow. Wow. How difficult is it to raise enough money to build a school in Sierra Leone?

 

MICHAEL: Ohh. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] It’s hard. Oh, man. I’ll tell you. It’s hard. [LAUGHS] Overall, I gave myself a goal of building a school in five years, raising $50,000. So we put together this celebrity bowling event, and I’m thinking, “OK. No one’s going to come, like, this is ridiculous.” And it’s noon. Not a soul has walked in. [LAUGHS] And I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, what have we done?” And then finally, one person walks in. One becomes two, two becomes four. Four becomes 10. Ten becomes 20. We raised $25,000. And I remember thinking to myself, “I’m going to quit my job as a soccer player, and I’m going to do this.” It was the first time I ever thought of doing anything but soccer. So we then say, “OK, we’re going to do, annually, a bowling event, every year.” So next year, we do a bowling event. And a week before the bowling event, I get traded. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] I get traded the week before! And I’m just like, “What is going on right now?” 

 

I moved from California to Philadelphia. The show went on, and we broke even. And it started getting attention from the league, MLS. People then heard about it. People are gravitating towards this, and we’re raising money. We’re doing it. We’re doing it. And I get—so here’s year four, and I finally—I get this phone call from Cindy saying, “Hey, there’s a community in Allentown that is desperate for a school. Would you mind if we shifted the money towards this area?” And I was torn, because I—it was a fantasy that I had, of, like, “I’m gonna build the school in my hometown.” And so I said, “OK, let me think about it.”

 

KAREN: Tell me the story of how you ended up playing for the national team in Sierra Leone.

 

MICHAEL: Oh, well, it was my last year in Chivas in L.A. 2011. And I’d had a really good year. Then I get word that the US national team—Bob Bradley was the coach of the US team at the time. They said, “Hey, Bob wants to call you in.” So Bob Bradley had said, “After the Gold Cup, I’ll call you in for a friendly.” And then on top of that, a friend of mine and colleague, Kei Kamara, Kei calls me. “How’d you like to come play for Sierra Leone?” And I’m like, “Uhh, well….” Because my thought—it was, “I want to play in the World Cup. If I’m doing my math correctly, the US has been to a lot of World Cups. Sierra Leone, last time I checked, have not been there. I think I’ll go to the US.” 

 

The US play in the Gold Cup final against Mexico. They get destroyed. Bob Bradley gets fired. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] And so my agent calls the next coach, Jürgen Klinsmann. “Hello? Hello? You there, Jürgen?” [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] 

 

I didn’t get called up, because I wasn’t in Jürgen’s plans. And to put the cherry on top, I go to Portland. I do my ankle in the first five minutes. 

 

KAREN: Oh.

 

MICHAEL: My season’s done. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] And I remember saying, “If I ever get this chance again, I will choose to play for Sierra Leone.” So that was 2011. 2014, I start having injuries. I have sports hernia surgery. It’s—it’s not good. It’s—it stinks. I tear my lower ab. I tear my groin. It’s, it’s—I’ll spare you the details, but it’s—it’s bad. So I’m out for months. So I’m laying in my apartment, and my phone goes off, and it’s Johnny McKinstry. And he said, “Hey, come play for the Sierra Leone national team.” And I go, “John, you got the wrong guy. I can’t even walk right now.” And he said, “I don’t care, just come play, because I have a bunch of good soccer players, but I don’t have enough leaders. I think we could do something here, because I just need your presence.” I rehabbed, and barely made it. Got on the plane and made my international debut 10 days later in Freetown.

 

KAREN: Wow.

 

MICHAEL: And what was really powerful was I got to see the last two people I ever saw in Sierra Leone before I left to the States. It was my uncle, my mom’s brother, Habib, and my grandma. Gosh, it’s just—it’s surreal to even place myself back there. We go walking in this house, and she’s sitting there, and she looked—she hadn’t aged at all. She looked just like—and she was the sweetest woman, the sweetest woman I’d ever known. She just started crying, and I start crying. And I’d been away for almost 22 years. She said, “I waited for you.” I said, “What do you mean?” She goes, “I always knew you were going to come back. And so I waited for you.” Couple of months later, after I made my international call up, my grandma died. And, um…I’m really, really happy that I got to share that with her. And it was really cool that my first-ever game for Sierra Leone, she got to hear it on the radio. That was the most special—probably the most special moment on the field I’ve ever had.

 

KAREN: Well, tell me about that game, because as you say, Sierra Leone has never actually made it to the World Cup. But this was a World Cup qualifier. Was that a big deal?

 

MICHAEL: It was—oh, my gosh. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] So, playing at Siaka Stephens Stadium—it’s in the middle of Freetown. It’s raining cats and dogs. It’s just monsoon season. There’s almost 60,000 people at the stadium. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] It does not look like it can hold 60,000 people. [LAUGHS] It looks like everyone in one part of Freetown is at this game. And if you’re not at the game, you’re outside the game, standing room only, people peeking through cracks watching. It—it was like the city shut down. We score early. It’s 1-nil. Two-nil. Three-nil. The coach was like, “Hey, look, I’m going to give you your debut.” So I come in at 3-nil, second half, 30 minutes left. And I’m taking it all in. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh.” And so I step on the field, and it hit me. It was like, “Wow, you are doing something that is so much bigger than you. This is for your family. This is for so many people you may have not even met that had a hand in—in getting you from Sierra Leone to the States. This matters.” And I was so hyper-aware of that. “This matters. This is a moment that matters so much and is bigger than you.” 

 

And so we’re playing, and I remember in that game, just to keep my nerves, I would talk to myself. “Ooh, nice pass.” [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] “Ooh, undercooked that one. Maybe a long ball next time.” And so, out of the blink of an eye, it’s 3-1. And 3-2. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] 

 

The game just goes on its head. We are pinned in. I’m just thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to make my international debut, and we’re going to lose.” [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] And so they finally blow the whistle. Our whole team’s celebrating. And it was a rite of passage, because I came back to Sierra Leone, and I was deemed “the American,” not “the Sierra Leonean.” 

 

KAREN: Mm.

 

MICHAEL: And here I was—made this entire journey to go back to where it all began. And I was still an outsider. And it was on this playing field—just like when I was a kid and I came to the States—I didn’t feel alone. I was part of the group. I belonged. Each call up, that deepened. Each journey to Africa, it changed from being “the American” to being “the Sierra Leonean” to then being “African soccer player Michael Lahoud.”

 

KAREN:  So just to recap: Michael had reconnected with his family in Sierra Leone, but he still hadn’t finished raising enough money to build that school. And he still hadn’t decided if he’d give up his dream of building a school in the neighborhood where he grew up, and instead put the money toward a school in a neighborhood where it was even more desperately needed. And time was quickly running out on that five-year goal he had set for himself. So that’s when he had another conversation, this one with his Sierra Leone national team teammate Kei Kamara.

 

MICHAEL: So Kei and I were sitting at Lungi Aairport in Sierra Leone, and he said, “Hey, do you want to partner on building a school?” He said, “Look, I’m really good at getting the media involved. You seem to be doing events. We can put our, our resources together, and let’s get a school built.” So at Lungi Airport—over, like, this big thing of fish at a fish market, cassava leaf, everything—and we do a handshake agreement. We tell Cindy, “Hey, we’re going to partner. We’re opening this Allentown school.” That’s 2014. Kei’s playing in England, first Sierra Leonean to ever play in the English Premier League, mind you. I’m playing in MLS. 2015, Kei calls and says, “Hey, I’m moving back to the States.” Comes, plays in the MLS. Has his best season ever. His team makes it to the championship. And every time he gets an interview, someone says, “Hey, tell me about that school.” Money starts coming in. 2015, it’s September, I think, the 12th. I get a phone call from Cindy, and she says, “We did it.”

 

KAREN: Wow.

 

MICHAEL: And I go, “Pardon me? We did what?” And she goes, “The school’s built. We did it.” And we built it in five years. [MICHAEL AND KAREN LAUGH] Wow.

 

KAREN: And what did that feel like to accomplish this thing?

 

MICHAEL: Ah…surreal? It was emotional. And I’m someone who needs time to process when I hear something. It wasn’t until Cindy asked, “Who would you like to dedicate the school to?” So I dedicated it to both my grandmas, because in that moment, I remembered the beginning of where I came from.

 

KAREN: Yeah. Yeah. I do want to ask you one more question, which is: I want to ask you about some of the work you’ve done more recently, right? Which is trying to connect people who have come from Africa back with countries back home. So why is it that you do that kind of work?

 

MICHAEL: I love that question. In Africa, what I’ve learned is, there’s so much attention put towards, “You got to get out of Africa.” That life awaits you in Europe, life awaits you in the States. And it is so easy to forget where you came from. I really want to impart that message of, “It is OK to come back. I actually implore you to come back.” The difference between me and someone else is just—someone gave me a chance. And I want to go back to give just one child, one person, a chance. Because at the end of the day, I’m a kid from Sierra Leone, from Freetown, from the east end, from Kissy Village, who got the opportunity, left civil war, who left everything I knew behind, followed the ball, and was invited to get an education. And through those things, I hope, and I think, and I have proof, we get to give the next generation a chance.

 

IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our executive producer is Karen Given.

 

KAREN: We had help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app. And please leave us a review.

 

IBTIHAJ: To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast…

 

KAREN: In 2015, cyclists Rebecca Rusch and Huyen Nguyen set out to bike the entire 1,200 miles of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The two women started the ride as strangers from opposite sides of the Vietnam War, but they ended as sisters.

 

REBECCA RUSCH:

I know in, in the Vietnamese tradition, it’s very common to call people “big brother,” “big sister” as a term of endearment. But I, I think it even goes deeper with Huyen and myself.

 

IBTIHAJ: That’s next week on The Long Game.