Soccer star goes home to build schools

Kei Kamara escaped civil war in Sierra Leone to become a top professional soccer player in England and the US. Now he's helping his home country through the nonprofit group Schools for Salone.

Courtesy of Cindy Nofziger
Kei Kamara receives a check from an American school to be used by Schools for Salone, a nonprofit group that builds schools in Sierra Leone.

His fairy tale return to Major League Soccer ended with an ultimately disappointing MLS Cup appearance as his Columbus Crew narrowly missed out on becoming 2015 champions.

Kei Kamara was the US league’s regular season joint-top goal scorer and a key part of his club’s postseason charge to the finals in his first season back after a spell in England with Norwich City and Middlesbrough.

But his individual athletic achievements show only one side of Mr. Kamara, who is a native of Sierra Leone. Winning the soccer league’s Humanitarian of the Year show another.

Along with his countryman and fellow Sierra Leone national team player Michael Lahoud, he is contributing to the work of the Seattle-based charity Schools for Salone, which is helping to rebuild the West African country’s education system.

That resulted earlier this year in the completion of the Kei Kamara-Michael Lahoud Education for All School in Allentown, a resettlement area just west of the nation's capital, Freetown, which is Mr. Lahoud’s hometown. Kamara and Lahoud, a midfielder with the Philadelphia Union, joined forces to raise the funds needed to make the school a reality.

Sierra Leone has made progress since being ravaged by a decade-long civil war in the 1990s. The country was devastated economically, and the need for humanitarian aid has been great. Kamara and Lahoud were just schoolchildren as they joined the hordes fleeing the country as war raged. Today, Sierra Leone remains a work in progress, a poverty-stricken nation that is rebuilding its infrastructure.

Schools for Salone, led by Executive Director Cindy Nofziger, has contributed greatly. Since setting up the charity in 2004, Ms. Nofziger says, they have managed to start 19 primary schools and two libraries in locales across the country.

To help generate funds for the group’s efforts, she has successfully turned to members of the Sierra Leone diaspora, such as Kamara and Lahoud.

For Kamara, it is about giving back to a country that gave him his start in life.

His memories of his escape from the civil war there are “vivid,” he says.

“It’s not something I would wish upon any child, any kid, any teenager growing up, or anyone growing up in a country of war," he says. “So that’s why now that we’re getting the chance, we’re blessed to be out here doing what we’re doing. We want to give back to kids out there, give them a better shot at life.”

Kamara says family was a big driver behind his motivation to get involved in humanitarian work.

“I grew up in a big family, and they’ve always been there for me, always provided for me, kept me away from trouble and everything,” he says. “So being part of a big family drives us to give back to people around us.

"Up to this day my family is really open-handed back home in Sierra Leone, and they enjoy the fact that some of the things that they taught me are paying off, and I’m able to extend my hand to others.”

The work will not stop at the recently opened Kamara-Lahoud school, which is just their first contribution, Kamara says.

“We keep working, going forward, and trying to help out some more. Because for me personally I’ve been back to Sierra Leone, and I’ve visited other schools that Schools for Salone have built in different towns. I’ve made some trips to different places, and it’s amazing to see the smiles and the happiness in [the children's] faces in these new schools that they’re building.”

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