football on a field

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September 24, 2011

The civil unrest that erupted in the Republic of Sierra Leone in 1991 initiated the near eleven year war that swept through the country, threatening the lives of residents. In the capital, Freetown, Amara Darboh was just 2-years-old when his father and mother, Solimon and Kadita, were killed during a surge of violence. His father was a member in the military and after his parents’ deaths, he had few options.

Left in the care of surviving family members, their only choice was to flee. Amara spent the next several years living in Gambia and Senegal as a refugee. Life looked bleak for little Amara who had lost his parents and was unable to return home because of the ongoing civil war. Where was he to go if not back home?

The first seven years of his life were spent surviving life and death situations, education seemed impossible, and the hope for a better future was non-existent.

But when Amara was 7-years-old, an unexpected and seemingly impossible event happened. “It was a refugee program. We randomly got picked to come to Des Moines,” he told the Des Moines Register.

Amara, now 17, was among many of the refugees from Freetown that sought a safety and the chance to begin anew. He’s using his good fortune at being chosen for the relocation program to pursue the education he desires and at the same time his passion for football.

Amara’s future began to take shape after he had been living in Des Moines with other refugees. The opportunity for sports came during his time spent involved in the Beaverdale Little League baseball organization in which he befriended Max Schaefer.

“I got to be close friends with Max. Whatever Max did, I did. We built a relationship; we became almost like brothers,” he said.

After being invited to Max’s house for a family dinner, Dan and Mary Schaefer ‘hit it off’ well with Amara. Shortly thereafter, they became his legal guardians.

From a young child in a war-torn African country, Amara was not only surviving but began to thrive in his new opportunity.

Amara was skilled in soccer and had only every played in sandals. When Max said he was going to play football, Amara joined in on the unfamiliar sport. Although he was reluctant to play the game, unsure of the need for physical contact, he played.

“I thought it was crazy. I didn’t get it — people were running around and hitting each other,” he said.

Additionally, he was an excellent basketball player and would find opportunities to experience sports he never had in Africa.

When he first attended Dowling Catholic School, Amara thought he would play basketball and many of the coaches at the school recognized his talent. However, after watching football practice and eventually playing, it was evident that Amara was at the same skill level as those who had grown up in the sport.

“After going to camps, that was when I started to realize that I was competing right along on the football field with guys who had been playing football their entire lives. That’s when I realized that if I kept working hard, good things could happen,” he said.

It may sound simple but Amara had a profound realization. If he worked hard, he could do anything. This idea was unfathomable for him as a child struggling to survive day in and day out. However, football was his gateway to life and success.

Off the field, Amara is an outstanding individual. “We’re really proud of how humble he is,” Mary Schaefer said.

“Here’s what kind of an engaging person Amara is: my daughter had a school project to do when she was in third grade. It dealt with a country, and she picked Sierra Leone. That’s a 10-year-old girl who looks up to Amara so much that she did a project on where he came from,” said Dowling football coach Tom Wilson.

Amara has made an impact on those around him not simply through his athletic ability but through his character. He has overcome adversity in a terrifying form, war. He has shown that with the help of others, strangers for that matter, and individual will, good things can happen.

His sportsmanship and ability on and off the field, has attracted the attention of prestigious football programs around the country. He’s been offered full rides to schools hoping to add him to their team, a prospect that was non-existent in his earlier years.

A reporter asked Amara what he might be doing if he were still in Africa. “Where would I be if I was back in Africa?” he asked, repeating a reporter’s question. “I believe if I was still in Freetown, there would be a good chance that I wouldn’t be alive today.”

He is a humble 17-year-old kid from Africa who has experienced more than many can imagine. It seems Amara knows that his circumstances are the cream of the crop and is working on utilizing the opportunities he’s been given the best he can. “Even if I was alive [in Africa], my life would be nothing like it is now,” he said.

Amara is a survivor who grew up without parents and spent his early childhood years moving around refugee camps or in a foreign country. While using his athletic talent to further his career and to better himself, he has not lost sight of where he came from. He was once a 2-year-old African with a grim future and now he is a small-town celebrity garnering national attention in college football. He is an example of the individual’s will to survive and to seek a brighter future.
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