MLS: Scoring champ Kei Kamara escapes civil war, thrives with Crew
Kei Kamara is living a dream, but he still can't shake off the nightmares from his past.
Although the soccer star admits to facing nerves before matches, the feeling doesn't compare to the pressure he faced as a youth in war-torn Sierra Leone.
"I go to bed and I have to say, I still have nightmares," Kamara, whose 24 goals this season have propelled Columbus Crew SC into the Eastern Conference final of the MLS playoffs, told CNN.
Born in Kenama, a town anti-government rebels infiltrated during his youth, Kamara was wandering around the neighborhood with friends on day when he witnessed a scene which scars him to this day.
"I don't know how old I was, I might have been 10 or 11," the 31-year-old recalls. "They had captured a few of the rebels, they put them down and tied them, and all us kids just wanted to be out there and see what's going on."
It was a decision he would come to regret.
"We just watched an execution just in front of us," he says, still somewhat bewildered that it was possible for a kid his age to witness such violence. "Nowadays when you think about that, it was never something good for (me) to see."
One-on-one with Kei Kamara02:03
Understandably, the scene left an imprint on Kamara.
"I still have nightmares of me just running, me never settled in one place," says the 6-foot 3-inch forward. "There's always something happening, there's always people chasing us. That's my nightmare. Every day I wake up and I just go, 'Okay, that's exactly what my childhood was, that's why it keeps coming back."
The concept of feeling settled in a hometown is crucial to Kamara, both on his playing career and psyche.
Arriving in the U.S. as a 16-year-old refugee, he lived with family in the Los Angeles area where he blossomed into goalscorer during his college career at nearby California State University, Dominguez Hills.
As a collegiate third-team All-American, he garnered enough attention for the Crew to select him ninth overall in the 2006 MLS draft. But Columbus was not home -- at least not immediately -- and Kamara struggled, scoring only five goals in 36 appearances.
The friendly banter proved to be the catalyst he needed to kickstart his career.
"Coming to America, the way you can connect with the fans or connect to the people around you and make people smile, I just enjoy it," Kamara says while flashing his infectious grin.
"It makes me play well," he asserts. "When I see that in them, it gives me extra energy and I love it."
Feeding off the home crowd converted Kamara into a clinical professional scorer, netting 38 goals for Sporting Kansas City in two and a half seasons.
Known for a heart-shaped hand gesture that he flashes after scoring goals, Kamara took his celebration with him to the UK -- spending a loan spell with Premier League Norwich City and then signing for second division Middlesbrough. He proved popular enough to earn pub songs in his honor (one named "Heart Shaped Hands"), but after 36 appearances in England Kamara returned to the MLS with newfound determination.
Because Kansas City had sold away his rights, Kamara was assigned a new team via the MLS' allocation ranking system, which by coincidence positioned his former club the Columbus Crew right at the top.
This time Kamara and fans from the Ohio state capital embraced one other with heart-shaped joy as the goals flooded in. This year he was the joint-leading scorer with 22 goals in the regular season.
After losing the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal playoff in Montreal, Kamara scored twice as his team overcome a 2-1 deficit, winning the home leg 3-1 in extra time. The Crew will next play top seed New York Bulls for a place in the title match.
As he continues his dream of reaching the MLS Cup final for the first time, he feels he is carrying a torch for the masses of refugees facing crisis outside of their homelands.
"It's really touching when you hear all these stories, and see people running away from their homes," he says. "Because your home is your home.
"Even now, I ran away from Sierra Leone for so long, (but) all I want to do is go back home and see my family. I'm not so into the politics, but hearing that there are a bunch of closed doors on these people, nobody wishes any of this to them or their families or their countries."
Kamara says he can empathize with the horrific experiences many refugees have to endure, especially the children.
"Later on in life, it really does haunt you a little bit," he adds. "I'm just praying for the people in these situations, mostly (for) the kids, because (they) have nothing to do with these things growing up, nothing at all."
The images of refugees in crisis that populate the news evoke painful memories for Kamara, who says having a close-knit family saved him from the life of a child soldier -- the fate of many other youths in Kenama.
"The rebels came in, and our house was one of the biggest houses in town ... they captured our house, basically," he recalls. "They lived in our house for a few weeks, and when they were pushed out of town, you could have easily went with them. But at that moment, my family stuck together and never made me feel not wanted.
"Because when that happened, most of the kids were trying to find a home. Most of the kids went with them, because they were showing them that they can protect them and stuff, so I still feel really blessed that I was not a part of that."
But in a strange way, Kamara is also grateful for all he has been through, even the emotional scarring.
"Everything that happened to me as a child growing up, or everything I saw in my country Sierra Leone having a civil war, I don't wish that on anyone -- but to me it's actually been a blessing," he says. "Because I've taken all the positives from all that, and I'm really trying to help out, going back to Sierra Leone and helping out with the kids back there."
Despite the frustrating experience at international level, however, Kamara remains a giver, both to his birth country and his adopted hometown in Middle America.
"I was a refugee coming to America, and we were just finding a place, finding a home -- a new home," he recalls.
With wife Kristin and their new baby daughter, and pooch Chelsea (named after his favorite Premier League club) -- not to mention the Crew faithful firmly by his side -- it's unlikely that Kamara will be looking for a new home anytime soon.