Ibrahim Dabo fled war-torn Sierra Leone in 1997, and is now making a successful life in the United States. He talks about his experiences and his hopes for this summer's World Cup.
You left Sierra Leone in 1997 as a result of war. Tell us about this aspect of your life - why did the rebels invade and how was it like living in another country as a refugee?
I really do not know what triggered the start of the war. I left Sierra Leone in 1997 after the rebels invaded the capital city, Freetown. I was very young at the time – 13 years old. In Freetown, they overthrew the democratically elected government.
There was instability and chaos. The risk of being abducted by rebels frightened me a lot. In May of 1997, I fortunately escaped, leaving the country by sea en route to The Gambia, alongside my brother.
That was yet another ordeal – spending five horrible days at sea. The boat in which we traveled, with about 650 people on board, almost sank in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as the sea waves went wild during our penultimate day at sea.
We ran out of food and water, the captain lost his route, the communication system on the boat broke down, one engine went down and we were running on only one engine.
There was also an outbreak of cholera. People joined hands and prayed; it was very scary. It’s a long story.
On the other hand, you can imagine what it means going to a country you’ve never visited before and wondering what to expect – different culture, among other things.
Upon arrival, the boat anchored away from the Gambia harbor. The navy boats came in and officials from the Gambia Red Cross brought us food and drinks. What a relief it was. I appreciated that a lot.
When it was announced that the World Cup is coming to South Africa how did you feel and what did it mean to you as an African?
It was such a great feeling, beyond words. The World Cup coming to Africa this year should be an achievement that Africans should be proud of and we should prove to the rest of the world that we can host a great tournament.
So, I was very excited following that announcement and looking forward to the tournament. Africa’s time has finally come, and “Africa is calling.”
This is also a wonderful opportunity for us to show that Africa is not just about wars or other disturbances but a continent rich with talents, a unique culture, and an ability to host a successful World Cup tournament.
What legacy do you think this World Cup will leave to Africa and your country of birth, Sierra Leone, in particular?
We hope to see success for African teams. My country of birth, Sierra Leone, will join in on the celebrations throughout the tournament and spur the African teams on to glory. This is our moment, and we’ll have to make the best of it.
I believe the tournament being held in Africa will also serve as a wake-up call to the football authorities in Sierra Leone that the time has come for us to return to the drawing board and plan well for future tournaments.
We need to focus on development of grassroots football, participate frequently in international friendly matches, and work toward qualifying for the Nations Cup and World Cup.
A solid plan needs to be in place; we can qualify if we plan very well and take the necessary steps to get there.
To the players, administrators and all the stakeholders in Sierra Leone football, the time has come for us to work together for the growth of the game.