Tanzanian Refugee Camp Student Trips to Jacksonville University Football Ground

On the first chilly night of fall, Selemani Baruani left the University of Jacksonville locker room in his crisp white and green JU uniform – number 20 – and flashy Nike football boots with laces and chartreuse accents.

His team’s Crosstown rivals, the University of North Florida, were already warming up and the stands were filling up. Along the eastern sideline, the wind whipped 15 national flags, banners that represent the countries JU players call their home.

Fourth from the right: the blues, reds and yellows of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This flag flies for Baruani, but it represents a place he has never seen: in late 1996, his parents fled conflict in the Congo in haste and confusion, their lives in danger, and carried away only their daughter and a son still in his mother’s womb.

They boarded a boat that took them across Lake Tanganyika to a refugee camp on the eastern shore in Kigoma, Tanzania. Their baby, Selemani, was born early the following year, on January 23, 1997.

For years he knew nothing but this camp, where he helped herd goats and chickens, grew vegetables and made handmade, sun-baked bricks for the walls of the hut. his family.

He learned to play football there, barefoot, on dusty pitches, with balls made of sacks, sacks filled with gloves that children blew in and tied to keep inflation going, sacks that kept a shape approximate soccer ball after children tighten the rope net. around them.

A few people in the camp had televisions, and for the occasional big international football match, he would take some money and pay for the chance to watch the best players in the world play.

As a young teenager, he finally left the camp when he and his family – now made up of eight siblings – learned that they were going to America, as refugees.

They took a small plane to the airport in Kenya, a place he had never seen in Tanzania. Other wonders awaited them: a big Delta plane, where nice people showed the Baruani children how to play at the movies (Alvin and the chipmunks impressed them a lot). London seen from the sky, and New York too.

Then Glendale, Arizona, outside of Phoenix, where Baruani joined an eighth-grade class where he didn’t understand a word from anyone. And no one understood their Swahili.

But there was a soccer ball at recess, and everyone understood that. He calls it the language of football.

“The language of football is that wherever you go you can make friends, you can fit in just through football,” Baruani said, hours before the big game against UNF, the annual River City Rumble. . “You play ball with your feet, you put your energy into it, through your heart. People can tell by the way you play.

ALMOST A HERO

Around 15 minutes into the game, which was already tied at 1-1, Baruani was substituted at striker. Within moments, he used his speed to find a tiny bit of space in front of the UNF goal as a perfect cross came from the left side.

For a second or two, it looked like he would be the hero.

Inches. He was only a few centimeters away.

As Baruani separated two defenders, the UNF goalkeeper slipped to snatch the ball from his foot, and he had to jump on him, aimless.

At halftime, a Times-Union photographer showed him a photo of that moment on his camera screen. It was a beautiful action shot, showing every detail of the room. Baruani took a quick look. But he doesn’t smile, doesn’t react. He would have preferred to have the goal.

Football is his passion, his joy, but it’s serious. As a freshman at Glendale High School, he was assigned to the junior varsity team. He wasn’t happy about that, so he went out and scored 10 goals in his first game.

He quickly became an academic and continued to score in high school and then for two years at Glendale Community College. This caught JU’s attention and coach Mauricio Ruiz flew to Arizona to watch Baruani play. He’s small — JU’s roster lists him, perhaps optimistically, at 5-5 — but he’s quick and talented, Ruiz said, and he matches the team’s focus on academics, the teamwork and high character.

Then there is his story…

“We like people who have a story for them,” Ruiz said.

In Arizona, the coach learned that Baruani worked nights to help support his parents and siblings. He would often come straight out of work to play games in the late morning and then go to class. His grades weren’t great at first, although in his sophomore year in college he had nearly a 4.0 GPA, Ruiz said.

This game gave her the chance to win a full scholarship to JU, covering tuition, room and board. He now has his own bedroom, the first in his life.

The coach said Baruani, known to the team as Sele, has proven popular with his teammates. He has been willing to take on a leadership role, even as a new guy. But, like other junior college transfers before him, he is still adapting to the pace of play at JU: “Everyone here is talented, everyone is explosive,” Ruiz said. “You have to operate in fourth and fifth gear all the time.”

For a striker, he’s also a little too selfless, often passing the ball when he’s better off keeping it himself and trying for goal-scoring glory. That’s exactly the kind of person he is, Ruiz said. Still, the coach said he will try to change that, at least on the pitch.

At the River City Rumble, Baruani was substituted twice more in the second half, for long stretches each time. But he couldn’t score a goal, and neither could any other JU player. The team lost 2-1 in an emotional game in which JU, after being sent off, was forced to play much of the game with one player down.

Afterwards, Ruiz gathered the players on the pitch, told them how proud he was of them, how with their hearts they can bounce back for their next game. Baruani nodded, but as he walked towards the sideline, he stopped for a few words. He shook his head. “Losing sucks,” he said.

AN OPPORTUNITY

Baruani is studying sociology at JU and sees himself eventually returning to Arizona, perhaps to work with the large Congolese community there. He would go home. “America is our home. It’s where my family is. It’s the land that gave me the opportunity, saved my family,” he said. “Who knows where we would be?

Her father, who was a teacher in the Congo, works in the catering department of a university; his mother, who was a nurse at the refugee camp, cleans at a children’s hospital, working nights after caring for her own children during the day. “My parents,” he said, “sacrificed a lot.”

They are gone now, however. The same goes for everyone else he knew growing up, in Tanzania or Arizona. But he looked across the field to the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo waving on the first cool night of autumn, and he said, “Seeing that flag makes me feel let my people look at me.

Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082