Handwalla Bwana was known in the refugee camp as the kid who would make soccer balls out of garbage. There were not nearly enough regulation soccer balls to go around in Kakuma — a roughly 200,000-person, soccer-mad settlement in northwest Kenya — so Bwana filled a void. He and his pals kicked trash around and, for a while, that worked well enough.
The first time Bwana played on turf, he says, was one of the best days of his life. It was in Atlanta in 2010, when Bwana was in middle school, after his family had recently immigrated to the United States. (More than 860,000 African immigrants gained lawful permanent residence in the U.S. from 2001 to 2010.)
“The turf was something else,” Bwana says. “When I was playing in Kakuma, you could miss and hit a rock, or you could play on sand or dirt, and it’s 100 degrees outside, and then your feet start to cut open and start bleeding.”
He lived in Atlanta for three months before moving to Seattle with his mother and little brother. From the Ballard High School team to the Sounders FC Academy, then to the Washington Huskies soccer team, Bwana developed a reputation as an affable, ebullient scoring savant: He had 12 goals and 13 assists in 39 games with the Huskies. And in January, Bwana, 18, signed with the Seattle Sounders under the Homegrown Player designation — just like DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris once did.
But it was that day in Atlanta that Bwana says he realized he could make a future out of soccer.
“When I was in Africa, I never dreamt,” Bwana says. “I mean, I was a kid — we all wanted to be on TV, we wanted to make it. But when I was there I never thought about when I’m going to become pro, what I’m going to do, because I never thought that was my talent.
“Trying to survive, making sure someone doesn’t come to your house and kill you. That’s the hardest part.”
It’s not wrong to say that Bwana needed to immigrate to succeed. Kakuma began as a temporary settlement in 1991 and it has become nearly impossible both to dismantle, or for its residents to leave. The population has fluctuated over time, but as of 2015 the UNHCR estimated the camp’s population at roughly 185,000 residents. Soccer is a major sport there, and an important way many young men and women fight idleness in a place that offers almost nothing else to do except wait.
In fact, Bwana is one of two former Kakuma refugees playing professional soccer; the other, Australia’s Awer Mabil, was resettled in 2006 when he was 11 years old. But there may be many more pro-caliber players currently burning the soles of their feet on Kakuma’s dirt.
”It is extremely important to see people from Kakuma succeed outside the camp,” says Tom Mboya, a youth officer for the Lutheran World Federation, the NGO that oversees sports activities in Kakuma. “This helps to reduce the general feeling of hopelessness and despair that refugees experience — a feeling that ability, education, and hard work is not appreciated and does not bring much to the table. This general feeling is borne out of the fact that educational opportunities are limited.”
And yet, Kakuma is still very often better than the places refugees hail from. The camp opened to accommodate South Sudan’s Lost Boy generation displaced by civil war. South Sudanese refugees make up roughly 60 percent of the population, but Kakuma also shelters people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all escaping circumstances like oppression, war, genocide, and famine. If Kakuma is a place where to survive is a struggle, at least survival is a possibility.
Bwana’s mother Fatima, a native Kenyan, moved to Kakuma from Mombasa, believing that the camp offered her family a better chance of immigration to the United States. Bwana believes his father — who had another wife and played less of a role in raising him, but to whom he’s still close — is Somali, though he doesn’t know for sure. The family is Muslim, and Kakuma offered refuge from oppression in a heavily Christian nation, as well.
In exchange for only relative safety, Bwana slept on the floor of a mud house surrounded by thorn-tree fencing. He says his life was threatened at times while living in the camp, though he doesn’t go into detail — Bwana made a promise to his mother not to publicly discuss the violence his family faced. During the days, he played soccer almost constantly. “My mom would tell me stories,” Bwana says. “‘You would run around the house with a little ball, and you would kick it, and you would not stop, like literally no stop.’” At night, he would get stung by scorpions.
“Coming to America was something we were like, this is heaven for us, you know?” Bwana says. “It was exciting, not having to worry about death threats, or people holding guns on you, just worrying about life in general.
“You don’t have to worry about the water, no nothing.”
Marc Nicholls, the Sounders’ Academy technical director, first saw Bwana play four years ago for the Sounders’ club partner, Seattle United. To him, Bwana seemed to have innate ability, someone for whom “time seems to slow down a fraction around him” on the pitch.
“Which I think is a sign of someone of real quality when they are able to create time, create a little bit of space by intelligent movement and positioning,” Nicholls says. “The quality of his first touch also means that he is able to create that extra split second in order to make the right decision.”
Beyond his skill, Bwana is someone who scores key goals, Nicholls says — “It’s one thing to score when you’re 3-nil up, but he’s scoring goals when they’re 1-nil down, in tight games, significant goals” — which speaks to what he calls a certain bravery in Bwana.
“When we talk about soccer players and being brave, people think about the physical part, but there’s also a really important mental component to making key things happen,” Nicholls says. “I think it shows that mentally he has the ability to rise to the occasion. It reveals that he’s not afraid of the spotlight.”
Nicholls also calls him an “elegant” player. Bwana — 5’9” with a thin build — might call that “technicality,” but he says what he has is something unteachable, something that had to be forged.
“You can’t teach a kid to be really good on the ball. It’s the hours and hours and hours of that kid spending time with that ball,” Bwana says. “It’s like the loving and the affair between that ball and the kid. That’s how you become technical.”
Nicholls describes Bwana as shy, sweet, laid back, and polite — that he has a disarming smile, and lovely demeanor. Bwana, he says, is someone who enjoys himself. Bwana would say that’s purposeful.
“When I get the ball, fans get out of their seat because they want to see what I can do next. I was taught that whenever you get the ball, try to entertain the fans, because they paid the money to come watch, so make them enjoy it.”
Bwana’s says his first year in the United States was the hardest of his family’s lives. He didn’t speak English well, and even if he appreciated new luxuries like grass and safety, that language barrier made it difficult to build structure and friendships. A sense of normalcy didn’t set in until he was in eighth grade, roughly three years after he had arrived in Atlanta. The fact that he was going to school daily and being immersed in his adopted language quickly made him the best English speaker in his family.
His mother leaned on him a lot. He helped set up the bills his family needed to pay. He had prayed when he lived in Kakuma that they would get to move to the United States if only because he knew his mother wanted it badly. It hurt to see her struggle.
“It was very, very tough, but my mom just stayed strong,” Bwana says. “We weren’t used to how things work, we didn’t know. Imagine if you were thrown in the middle of a country not knowing the language.
“I don’t know how she managed to stay patient.”
Eight years after Bwana’s family moved to the United States, Nicholls would say that Bwana can sometimes seem overly comfortable, at least on the pitch. Bwana sometimes needs to be pushed to be on time, to be sure to expend every ounce of his energy in the short time the team has for training. He needs to be reminded that he isn’t just playing a game now.
“We hope that he is ready to take increased responsibility,” Nicholls says. “I think part of his growth now is sort of this professional mindset, coming in fighting every day.”
The contradiction for Bwana, of course, is that he has yet to fall short of a challenge. He has steadily moved through the ranks of soccer in the United States — through the University of Washington and the Sounders’ Academy system — to the point where soccer can be his career.
“We’re a club that’s not afraid to promote and expose players to the highest level,” Nicholls says. “Every year it seems like he’s been exposed to a different level, and that’s still the case.
“This is now a professional environment, this is now his job, this is now his life.”
Bwana is still learning who he is, which is a reality of being 1) young, and 2) having the chance to be challenged. The fact that Bwana has seized his opportunity is important to note now as much as ever.
When President Donald Trump reportedly called African nations “shithole countries” during a White House meeting to discuss immigration, implicit in Trump’s comment was the idea that origin, by itself, could determine a person’s potential and worth — that certain people can be treated like bits of trash.
In Kakuma, Mboya says that refugees reacted to Trump’s comments with “silent anger and resignation.”
Bwana doesn’t delve into anyone’s specific politics, but he is open about the refugee condition. To live in a refugee camp, he explains, is to prioritize survival above anything else, especially one’s future. And happiness, too. If Bwana seems to have an easy attitude toward soccer, well, maybe that makes sense for someone who no longer lives in fear.
“Nobody wants to live in a refugee camp. Nobody does,” Bwana says. “They’re running away from their country because they’re afraid of dying, they’re afraid of being punished, being killed. They want something to do with their life because there’s no point in living in the same place and not fulfilling your potential and not living your life.
“Because Kakuma, how are you going to find out what talents you have? You can’t. There’s nothing you can do to say, ‘Look, I have this talent, or that.’ Soccer for me, I was young. Who knew?”