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Commentary: Bernard Kamungo a shining example of what a kid from a refugee camp can accomplish

FC Dallas forward Bernard Kamungo plays the ball during the second half.
FC Dallas forward Bernard Kamungo controls the ball during a game against CF Montreal in March. Kamungo grew up in a refugee camp in Africa before immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager and finding hope through soccer.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)
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The global refugee population topped 16.1 million in 2015, the highest number in more than two decades and larger than the populations of 120 countries, according to the United Nations.

One of those refugees was a skinny boy named Bernard Kamungo, who, for the first 14 years of his life, knew of nothing outside the teeming camp in western Tanzania where he was born to displaced Congolese parents fleeing decades of war in their homeland.

Then a lifeline appeared. His family was approved for resettlement in the U.S. and less than a decade after escaping the camp for a home in Abilene, Texas, Kamungo hasn’t just grown into a man, he has become one of the best soccer players in his adopted country. Not only has the FC Dallas midfielder played for the U.S. national team, but he has hopes of suiting up in the Olympic Games this summer.

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“That was a dream, man, I won’t lie to you,” Kamungo said of the day his family left the camp. “Being able to get out of a refugee camp and come to the U.S. is something that I wanted for so long. So when I heard of us coming to the U.S., it was unbelievable. It’s a good feeling I’ll take with me my whole life.”

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But that was just the first step on a long and arduous journey. When Kamungo arrived in Abilene, a place he had not previously heard of, he spoke Swahili and French but no English. Soccer, one of the few things he brought with him from the camp, proved to be the icebreaker.

“Growing up, the only thing I had in front of me was a soccer ball,” Kamungo remembers.

In the Nyarugusu camp — with more than 150,000 people, one of the largest refugee resettlements in the world — the term soccer ball was more a concept than a reality since the ones Kamungo used were often made from wadded up bags or cloth wrapped around inflated condoms and medical gloves.

Yet that was good enough to provide a temporary break from the monotony of life there.

“There wasn’t much to do,” he said. “As soon as I started walking, I just loved the game, loved kicking a ball. At the same time, it was a way for me to get away from a lot of a lot of stuff, just kind of connect and keep my head together.

“It never crossed my mind that if I played these games, it might come and help me in the long term.”

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In Nyarugusu, Kamungo and his family of eight shared a room in a shack with no electricity or plumbing. Food was always scarce, the dirt spaces between the camp’s endless rows of shacks served as a playground, and planning for the future meant thinking no further ahead than tomorrow.

“Not a lot of stuff to remember,” he said. “Every single day I’d wake up and do the same thing over and over.”

FC Dallas forward Bernard Kamungo moves the ball during a match against the Seattle Sounders in October.
(Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

Kamungo isn’t the first soccer standout, or even the first potential Olympian, to emerge from the monotony, squalor and desperation of a refugee camp. Alphonso Davies, a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich and a World Cup starter for Canada, was born in a camp in Ghana, then emigrated to Edmonton with his family when he was 5. And distance runners Lopez Lomong, Abdihakim Abdirahman and Charles Jock are camp survivors who represented the U.S. in the Olympics or World Athletics Championships.

Their success doesn’t surprise Sara-Christine Dallain, the executive director of iACT, a Southern California-based humanitarian nonprofit that has used soccer to teach teamwork, respect, responsibility and pride to more than 43,000 children in refugee camps around the world.

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“There’s so much potential,” she said. “Just because children or families have been forced to flee their homes because of war and conflict doesn’t mean that they do not have their own dreams and aspirations. In fact, these children are so motivated to dream beyond the confines of their camp and to dream [of] a life beyond war and conflict in refugee camps.

“Soccer creates an opportunity for children to work towards achieving that dream.”

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Living in a camp, Dallain said, also provides a harsh sense of perspective because nothing those children will face on a playing field or a track will be tougher than what they faced as refugees.

“People who are living in a refugee camp are resilient, right? They have to every day make decisions and determine and figure out how to survive,” she said. “That strength, the mental toughness to survive and to rebuild your life is there and probably translates over to someone who’s becoming an athlete.”

Once he arrived in Abilene, Kamungo’s skills quickly earned him a spot on his middle and high school soccer teams, where he was the district’s offensive MVP and midfielder of the year. On the weekends he competed in adult pickup games.

Then he nearly tripped over the next step up the soccer ladder.

Simply trying out for an elite club team in central Texas costs as much as $500, a fortune for a refugee family struggling to build a new life in a new land. Eventually Kamungo’s brother Imani found an open tryout with the developmental team for MLS club FC Dallas. Kamungo impressed enough to be invited back for additional auditions and in March 2021, just weeks before the end of his senior year, he signed a professional contract.

FC Dallas forward Bernard Kamungo controls the ball during a match against CF Montreal in March.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)

A year later, he led North Texas SC, Dallas’ MLS Next Pro affiliate, with 16 goals, earning his MLS debut — and a new four-year contract — that summer.

Nine months later, he was back in Africa, called up to the Tanzanian national team for an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier with Niger. He didn’t play, though, clearing the way for the newly minted U.S. citizen to join the U.S. U-23 team for a pair of friendlies last October. He notched assists in both games and in January he started for the senior national team against Slovenia in San Antonio, 250 miles from his parents’ home in Abilene.

“This is like, every child’s dream,” he said. “If you become a professional soccer player, you always want to represent your country. So for me to be able to do that was a big honor.”

Yet the Olympic part of that dream might be receding. Kamungo has started only twice for FC Dallas since the middle of March and was left off the roster for the Olympic team’s June training camp, the final one before the roster for Paris will be chosen.

The fact he was even in the conversation and not in a refugee camp is reason enough to celebrate.

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“I’m thankful to get that chance,” Kamungo said. “I’m just happy for every second.”

? You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the “Corner of the Galaxy” podcast.

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