I’m going to tell you a story about how Arsenal changed my life. But first, you need to understand what I’ve been through.
I’m just a guy from Sierra Leone. I grew up in Freetown and, although I had a bit of rough start because I never had much of a family around me, my mother did everything she could to make sure her kids had everything they needed.
Food to eat and clothes to wear… and I used to drive her crazy with all the clothes I’d ruin! I loved to play football when I was younger and Thierry Henry was my idol. I destroyed most of my clothes by writing Henry 14 on the back – mum absolutely hated it!
Any time we had a ball, we’d find a pen as well and would write our favourite player’s name on the back of our shirts. I would write Henry 14, Henry 14, Henry 14 on all my clothes. He was my idol. I loved him. Mum? Yeah, she probably hated the sight of his name after a while!
But in all seriousness, up until the age of four, I had the best life and the best upbringing thanks to my mum. She looked after me and never let anything bad happen to me. But then when I got to the age of five, that’s when bad things started to happen.
I lost three of my close family members in a house fire and then when the Sierra Leone civil war broke out in ’99, my mum was killed. The Revolutionary United Front were looking for young boys so they could mould them into child soldiers. They took me away from my life as I knew it and for two years, I was in a civil war.
Between six and eight years old, I saw a lot and I was forced to do things that I wasn’t meant to be doing as a child. I don’t want to go into too much detail but I’ll put it this way: in the UK, parents are punished for not sending their children to school. Over there, the Front were teaching children how to use guns. It was a different world.
So how did I escape? When I was eight, I’d had enough. I needed to run away but the first time I tried, it didn’t work because they had guards all over the camp. The next time I got the opportunity, it was about 1am or 2am, and I ran away with a few of the other boys. I managed to get away with a bullet in my leg, but the other boys weren’t so lucky.
I would spend the next two or three days running through bushes with no idea where I was going, I just knew I couldn’t go back. Eventually I found my way back to the city, back to where my dad lived. Even though my mum and dad had split up before I was born, they had the relationship where I could visit him whenever, so I managed to track him down.
He couldn’t believe it when he saw me – he thought I was dead – and it was really tough at first. My mindset at that time was so different to his and my younger siblings’. He tried to find different ways to help me out but because there were no psychiatrists or therapists back then, there was just no way of getting back to having a ‘normal’ life.
I stayed with my dad until I was 15 and he passed away just before I turned 16. He’d had an accident when he was younger, at about the age of 25, and had lost all of his teeth. He was using dentures and one day when he went to bed, he swallowed them. We took him to the hospital but it was too late. From that day, we were homeless and I had to look after myself.
Before he passed away, my dad tried putting me through school because he thought it would be the best option. But it wasn’t the right thing for me because I’d never learned how to behave in a classroom. I left education in the end, but there was a programme in the school which did help me. I found out that sounds soothed me a lot. I would play the drums using my hands and it would help me relax, so I started to use that as a way of calming myself down.
I ended up joining up a group there. It turned out that they were in contact with a company called Arrow in Plymouth, who were looking to help people who had been involved with war. They wanted someone from our school in Sierra Leone to come over and do a performance about peace and reconciliation, so they could share that message around the world. I was put forward for it and I was so lucky to be a part of it.
Before I knew it, I was flying into Heathrow and getting on a coach to Plymouth – I didn’t have a clue where I was going, I’d never heard of Plymouth!
Even if you asked me where Liverpool, Manchester or any other cities like that were in England, I’d never know - let alone Plymouth! Arrow gave us pocket money when we arrived and I used the money to buy a ticket and come to London. Why? Well London is the only city I knew as a child because we used to sing the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.
I didn’t want to go back to Sierra Leone, so I made a friend in Plymouth and asked him how easy it was to get to London. He told me it was really far but that wasn’t going to stop me. I got in a cab, got on a train, left for London and never looked back.
I was homeless for my first two years in London, sleeping on the roads near Liverpool Street and begging with a bowl in front of me. I was so scared that people would try to send me back home, so I didn’t trust anyone. But then I was picked up by an organisation that looks after homeless people, New Horizon in Kings Cross, and they put me in a shelter. It’s a brilliant centre and they really got me through that time, helping me seek asylum when I needed it the most, and then when I was ready, they referred me to Freedom From Torture.
I was going there and seeing psychiatrists, therapists, for three times a week. It was intense. They ended up giving me two therapists and a psychiatrist who I had to see on a weekly basis because I had so much to work through. Then when I’d been doing those sessions for a while, they told me they worked with a football club.
‘Which football club?’ I asked.
‘Arsenal,’ they said.
‘Put my name down.’ And they did straight away.
The first session I had was in Highbury Fields about five years ago now. I went there and was introduced to Jack Ironside from Arsenal in the Community and from that point onwards, it’s history.
I’d already done my FA Level 1 and 2 coaching badges at New Horizon but then the Freedom From Torture project at the Arsenal Hub introduced me to a new way of thinking. We’d meet up every Monday afternoon, play on the pitch and just focus on football.
It doesn’t matter where you come from, what language you speak, you communicate in football terms. That’s it. Whatever happened to us back in our childhoods, it doesn’t matter. I actually spent most of my days there trying to build relationships and make friends with people who could help me become a better person.
I am where I am today because of the community department at Arsenal. They’ve supported me throughout because they’ve been able to find me jobs, find me courses to do, helped me become more employable. I even worked for Jamie Oliver’s company!
I never thought I would be working for a famous chef and I even work at the stadium, for the club I love. This all comes from Arsenal’s community team and that’s why I’m so grateful. It’s really my dream to work here. I never thought I would be able to say that I’d be working for Arsenal. But just wait, because this has been the best thing about it.
My matchday role at the Emirates involves me working as an assistant photographer to Stuart MacFarlane and David Price. Stuart once asked me who my favourite Arsenal player was. I don’t think he even finished the question before I jumped in.
‘Henry,’ I shouted. He just laughed.
Anyway, one day the community team were opening a new pitch in Islington and I went over to help photograph it. There was a small ceremony there and it was my job to take a few pictures and then take the memory card back to Stuart for him to upload. I took the photos and hurried back to the stadium to hand over the card.
‘Come here,’ he said.
‘Oh my God, am I in trouble or something?’
He just shook his head and led me up the stairs from the photographers’ office to the boxes inside Emirates Stadium. He opened the door and the next thing I saw was Thierry Henry stood right in front of me. Like right in front of my face.
Let me tell you now: I’ve never screamed like that in my entire life. I was shaking so much.
‘Are you OK?’ Thierry asked.
I just said: ‘In 20 minutes, I will be!’
It was an incredible experience to meet him. Stuart had told him a few stories about me writing his name on my clothes when I was younger, so when he found out I’d secured my papers later that year, Stuart arranged for him to send me a video message.
Honestly, I’ve watched that video more than 100 times – it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me! I’ve actually printed a picture of me and Henry, and it’s up in my house. When you go into my living room, it’s the first thing you see. A real dream come true.
It’s crazy to think of where I am now compared to where I was back then. Like I said, I’m renting a house, I’m engaged now – I actually proposed to my girlfriend at Emirates Stadium – I’ve got a job and I’m so much more employable. I still work on matchdays too, I don’t think I could ever give that up!
It’s a massive difference to when I was struggling back at home, to when I was travelling to Plymouth, to when I was homeless in London. Here I am now, doing great things. If it wasn’t for the club, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Thanks to Arsenal, I now feel as though I can support myself without relying on somebody.
They’ve not just helped me. Look at what they’re doing locally, nationally, internationally… it’s incredible. I’ve been lucky enough to tell my story and if it inspires other people, that’s all that matters to me.
So thank you again to Arsenal in the Community, to Freedom From Torture, to New Horizon and also the Baobab Centre For Young Survivors In Exile. You’ll never know just how grateful I am for everything you’ve done for me.
Copyright 2019 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.