Fate can be a funny thing and it often sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
In Michael Lahoud’s case, it happened when he was getting off the bus, walking into CenturyLink Field to play the Seattle Sounders in 2010 when he was a member of Chivas USA.
“How would you like to change the world?” yelled a woman who was waiting outside the team bus.
Lahoud turned, realizing she was addressing him. He walked over to the woman, who introduced herself as Cindy Nofziger, the executive director for the Schools for Salone program. The Schools for Salone program is dedicated to building schools for children in Sierra Leone, a war-torn country in West Africa.
Nofziger approached Lahoud because he was originally from Sierra Leone, coming over when he was 6 years old, getting out of the country just before civil war broke out.
“I had just turned 23 so someone asking me ‘How would you like to change the world?’ sounded pretty good to me,” Lahoud said, laughing. “She told me more about who she was and what she did, what Schools for Salone stood for, and she told me to go home and think about that question.”
Lahoud played in the game, then went home to think about what Nofziger had said to him. He went back to her the next day and told her that he wanted to help in anyway he could. She handed him a book called “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah and in reading it, had his eyes opened.
Lahoud was born on Sept. 15, 1986, in Freehold, Sierra Leone. At the time Freehold was the biggest city in the country and one of the biggest in Western Africa.
“I remember it being a kid’s paradise, at least from my point of view,” said Lahoud. “I remember going to the beach, I remember having a waterfall in our backyard. I also remember going downtown and it being a place that was just bustling with business.”
According to Lahoud, his first memories of soccer took place on those streets, just running around barefoot and kicking the ball around with his neighbors. He eventually left country in 1992 to join his parents in the United States. Almost as soon as Lahoud left, war broke out in Freehold, making him and his parents the only ones in his immediate family to get out in time.
Lahoud then had to deal with the culture shock of coming to the US as a child, not really knowing any English or understanding the body language used by his classmates.
“[Being an immigrant] I was so self-conscious about it,” Lahoud said. “The differences, the culture. I didn’t even realize the differences in race until I came to the US.”
Despite his initial struggles to adapt to the culture in the United States, Lahoud eventually learned English and from that point on grew up as a normal American child would, totally oblivious to what was happening back in Sierra Leone.
“It was almost like, everything that was happening with the terror and stuff, it was almost told to me as a fable,” said Lahoud. “I grew up hearing stories of the rebels, almost like the Bogeyman. Kind of like ‘Don’t go into the bushes or the Bogeyman will get you!’ and what I didn’t know was that they were being serious. It was something that my parents totally sheltered me from and it wasn’t until I met Cindy Nofziger in Seattle that I really grasped what happened after I left.”
Today, the Philadelphia Union take on the Columbus Crew SC, and their one-man goal scoring machine in Kei Kamara. Kamara, like Lahoud, is also from Sierra Leone, and was brought to the US in the early 2000’s with the help of a refugee program.
Being two of the only players from Sierra Leone in the MLS, Kamara knew who Lahoud was, but Lahoud didn’t know who Kamara was until they played against each other in 2009.
“I was with Chivas USA and we were playing the Houston Dynamo, where Kei played before he went to Kansas City, and the first couple minutes of the match he was speaking our native language, Creole, to me,” Lahoud said. “I was like ‘Who is this guy and why is he talking to me?’ He kept on trying to engage me and I was caught off guard by it but the following offseason we ended up playing pickup together in Southern California and that’s where I really got to know him.”
Between seeing him in the offseason, playing against him in the MLS and playing with him on the national team, the relationship between Lahoud and Kamara blossomed.
“Last week we were just talking a lot of trash leading up to this match,” said Lahoud. “We’re definitely quite close now, and playing on the national team together, I think that has been huge in our relationship.”
Lahoud made his first trip back to Sierra Leone in 2013, courtesy of the national team, after getting called up for a World Cup qualifier, making it almost 22 years since his last time in his native country.
“Going back was so surreal,” Lahoud said. “I didn’t even recognize the country, I went back to where I grew up and it was really odd seeing the people. A new family lived in my old house but it wasn’t until I saw my grandparents and my best friend from childhood that all the memories and emotions I had forgotten came rushing back.”
Lahoud finally got to see in person the work that Schools for Salone was doing for Sierra Leone, knowing that all his fundraising was going to a good place.
Lahoud wanted to help even more but was unsure how. The opportunity to do so came the following year when he and Kamara returned to Sierra Leone for another national team game. Together, they hatched out a plan to try and combine their resources in order to help the children even more.
“We sat down at lunch, and Kei had been doing some independent things for Schools for Salone, and I had been doing some independent things, and we kinda just put our heads together,” Lahoud said. “That conversation lead to Cindy Nofziger getting involved and being that bridge to help us collaborate and get a new school finished.”
When the two of them pooled all of their fundraised money together, they managed to have enough to build the school, with the groundbreaking taking place on May 19th. The school will have a school building, a well and a soccer field for the kids to play on. Lahoud hopes that the school will be finished by the end of 2015.
The school will be called “The Kei Kamara, Mike Lahoud Education for All Primary School” and though Kamara and Lahoud will be rivals on the pitch on Wednesday, both will still be thinking about the school that is being built half a world away.
When I asked him what he hopes building the school will do for the community, Lahoud’s answer was iconic of his outstanding character.
“We’re not only rebuilding education, we’re rebuilding hope.”
Contact Philadelphia Union writer Kyle Basedow at firstname.lastname@example.org.