Just like his life, new Minnesota United striker Kei Kamara’s first electoral ballot marked and submitted is well traveled.
His wife, Kristin, three young children and mother brought it with them from Denver to his new city this month. He carried it with him when all six visited the Minneapolis memorial that commemorates the life and death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in May when Kamara still played in Colorado.
“It just happened,” Kamara said. “The morning we went, I just said I’m going to take my ballot with me and pay my respect because this is a man who’s not going to be able to vote. It was cold, and snow was coming down. I had my ballot in my hand. I paid my tribute. I came back home and cast it in the mail. It really did feel special.”
A Muslim teenage refugee who escaped Sierra Leone’s long civil war in a leaky fishing boat, Kamara has been a U.S. citizen since 2006 but never voted until now.
Separated from his mother when he was 6, raised by an aunt and a multitude of cousins until he was 14, Kamara survived his West Africa country’s strife without becoming a casualty or child soldier. He saw “too much for a kid” long before he found acceptance and success in a new land and new life where he has become MLS’ fifth-leading all-time goal scorer.
Outspoken with what Loons coach Adrian Heath calls a “big personality,” Kamara now at age 36 plays for his ninth MLS team in 14 seasons after a September trade.
“I’m just a dream walking,” he said. “I never could have guessed all that can happen.”
Saw too much
Kamara’s mother, Fatima, won a 1990 immigration lottery and left for Los Angeles to help support the family she left behind. She sent her son to live with her sister in a house with five wives and filled with children just as Sierra Leone’s civil war between its army and anti-government rebels erupted. It lasted 11 years, killed at least 50,000 people and consumed the country.
“I didn’t have cousins growing up,” he said. “I didn’t know what that was. We were brothers and sisters.”
Kamara credits older brothers for keeping the family together and keeping him safe while rebels and government soldiers alternately lived with them for weeks.
“The things he talks about, I can hardly imagine unless you’re watching a movie,” said Loons veteran Ethan Finlay, who played two seasons with Kamara in Columbus. “But that’s how he grew up.”
Rebels recruited some of his brothers, and others shot his sister Baindu in the back when she refused to join. He and other children once watched soldiers execute rebels.
“I saw too much as a kid,” Kamara said. “I lived through it my whole childhood. It was in my town, in the cities. I saw everything you could see.”
He still often dreams such things.
“I have these nightmares where I’m running, being chased,” Kamara said. “It’s always something in your dreams.”
He traveled these past 22 years seeking home, from Sierra Leone to Gambia, where he wait-listed two years to join his mother in America. He arrived in Baltimore to stay first with an uncle in 2000, not long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“The year I came, the Twin Towers went down,” Kamara said. “I came from a civil war country and a war breaks out in America. It was very, very scary. I tried to understand these things I heard about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and I’m like, ‘That’s not what I was taught as a Muslim.’ ”
Lucky, wherever he goes
Finally reunited with his mother in Los Angeles after a decade apart, he was mocked in high school for his stutter and accent until he joined a soccer team. “They never made fun of me,” he said.
He starred at Division II California State-Dominguez Hills, and Columbus Crew drafted him ninth in 2006, the same year he became a U.S. citizen.
Fourteen years later, he has scored 130 MLS goals, played in England’s Premier League, married, become a father and searches still for a place to call home. Finlay calls him “matured” and changed by marriage and fatherhood this time around.
“It’s a strange one, isn’t it?” Loons coach Adrian Heath said about Kamara’s nomadic career. “He’s unique, probably one of the best headers of the ball there has been in this league. When you look ’round, scorers come at a premium. It doesn’t surprise me that people have taken him.”
Kamara considers his many travels a ticket to see the world. He answers “my family” when asked where home is in a career that might have the same theme as a childhood that left him a refugee without one.
“Some people are lucky staying in one place. I consider us lucky,” he said. “My wife is from Kansas. We’ve lived in England, Vancouver, all around America. When we’re done, we’ll find a place to call home.”
He considers his profession a ticket, too, to changing hearts and minds, from police and people who judge or profile him by his skin color or religion. A state patrol trooper stopped him for what he considered no reason on his drive with a Black friend from Denver to Minnesota after he was traded.
He said the encounter transformed when he told the white officer with a drug-sniffing dog he was a pro soccer player bound for his new team.
“Those always are my first words to ease the situation,” he said. “You judge me different if you know I’m a professional athlete. Right then, everything changed. He said, ‘Oh, my son plays soccer.’ It just changes.”
Not too late
Kamara never considered himself political, not in his youth watching Sierra Leone’s often corrupt two-party tribal system that he considered “just a game,” and a fixed one at that.
And not as an adult and an American when he thought his voice — and vote — didn’t matter, until now.
Kamara said he feels “a bit of regret” he had never voted, particularly now that he has daughters ages 5 and 9 months and a 3-year-old son by whom he wants to do right.
“I’m happy I came to my senses not too late,” he said. “Now I’m able to do that, exercise my rights. I have kids now. I don’t want to be telling my kids that I never voted.”
He considers himself better educated and committed — a member of MLS’ Black Players for Change and a father and husband — to seek racial equality, social justice and what Kamara terms “change for a better world.”
He said he is not voting for this first time solely because of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others.
“Maybe if I would have voted, if how many of us who didn’t vote would have, things would be different,” Kamara said. “It’s not that I want everybody to vote on my side. Yes, I have a side I’m voting for. But it’s voting so your voice is heard. Whatever the outcome is, let us all be part of it. Whether it goes our way or doesn’t go our way, I was part of it.”