How soccer saved MRU student Yusuph Kalenga

Soccer sheltered Kalenga as a young boy amidst the trauma of a Tanzanian refugee camp. Now his traumatic past gives him the internal strength necessary to excel with the Mount Royal University Cougars and to pursue a professional soccer career.

Cougars player draws strength from his experiences in a refugee camp

Yusuph Kalenga was born in a Tanzanian refugee camp, where soccer helped protect him. (Blaise Kemna)

In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city. 

Yusuph Kalenga remembers the first soccer ball he ever crafted. It was made out of banana leaves.

"We soak it, then we leave it in the sun so it can dry."

How many bananas does it take?

A lot, he says chuckling.

It would not be the last soccer ball Kalenga and his friends made; some out of bananas, others out of balloons covered in papier mâché.

Soccer sheltered Kalenga as a young boy amidst the trauma of a Tanzanian refugee camp. Now his traumatic past gives him the internal strength necessary to excel with the Mount Royal University Cougars and to pursue a professional soccer career.

Long Journey to Calgary

Kalenga says his mother was placed in a refugee camp by the United Nations after escaping from the Rwandan genocide.

It was there, on the outskirts of Kigoma, the capital city of Tanzania, that Kalenga — her third son — was born.

"We're very close to the forest," says Kalenga. "The crazy lions, zebras, everything is across the street from us."

Kalenga walked miles to go to school and to get clean water. The distance could prove dangerous.

"I've seen people get shot in front of my eyes at age seven or six," he says. "Sometimes I've seen husbands rape their own kids or people get kidnapped. But at the same time I couldn't do anything because I was just young."

So he did as his mother said.

"My mom taught me [to] just continue with my business 'cause if I just stopped and looked then I could've been next," says Kalenga, whose father ran away when he was only four.

In an environment with little protection, soccer was a saving grace.

Kalenga and his friends played the sport after school until their parents called them in at night. Between filling the time and providing safety in numbers, it kept them from trouble.

"In Africa, there's not that many sports other than soccer and running," he says. "If you don't play soccer, either you get kidnapped or you start being a bad person."

'What is Canada?'

One day, when he was seven, Kalenga came home from school to find his mother crying. She told him that their family had been sponsored to go to a place called Canada.

"My sister [and I] looked at each other and we were like 'what is Canada?'" he says.

They would soon find out.

"When we were coming to Canada they didn't want us to bring any other stuff other than our clothes, so then I was crying."

Remember the banana soccer ball?

"I was a little kid and I had that ball in my hands so they let me go with it," Kalenga says.

He still has it in his bedroom to this day.

A New Home

Kalenga's family arrived in Toronto and began waiting for their permanent residency before settling in Edmonton. In their new home, Kalenga  started playing soccer in a non-competitive league.

"Someone saw me playing and [said] that I'm not supposed to be in this league. This league is too easy."

Orest Ndabaneze, Kalenga's lifelong friend and current teammate, has seen that talent too.

If you don't play soccer, either you get kidnapped or you start being a bad person. So soccer was my way to get out of that.- Yusuph Kalenga

"Oh, he's a very quiet guy, but once he steps on the field his passion, you can see he just wants to win," says Ndabaneze, whose family also moved from Africa and experienced similar hardships.

Kalenga started playing for a club and was scouted for Team Alberta at the age of 12. He began to play against the best players from each province, including Ndabaneze. That's when Kalenga caught the attention of team Canada.

Unfortunately, he didn't have the travel documentation or Canadian citizenship needed to be part of the team. He continued to play, however, and joined FC Edmonton, the now-defunct professional team in the North American Soccer League, while in high school.

Next steps

Last fall, three years later, he signed up with the Mount Royal University Cougars.

"Right now, in school, I'm always stressing, like what am I doing here?" Kalenga says.

"Academics-wise I learn more slowly than others. I don't see myself as a teacher or engineer or whatever, I see myself as a soccer player."

On the soccer field, Kalenga was a Cougars starter and benefited from his time on a professional team.

"Even though I came at a young age, I already experienced a lot of things just to give back to the other teammates."

It's little wonder that the extreme circumstances of his childhood lent themselves to a certain perspective and composure in his play.

"I'm more mature than most 19-year-olds, like people my age from Canada, from what I've seen and what I've experienced."

Ndabaneze understands. 

"We were really young but the experiences that he went through and the experiences that I went through are something that you will never forget even when you're 75. It's trauma right? So it's nightmares that always come back," he says.

"Soccer has always been our way out. It's our getaway place."

Looking to Europe

That's why Kalenga says he prays before and after each game.

"I'm not praying to God like, 'help us win.' I'm just like, 'Thank you for the opportunity to play this game.'"

Kalenga is now trying to get his Canadian citizenship so he can play professionally in Europe and maybe for team Canada.

The fact that most players join European clubs when they are very young doesn't faze him.

Unfortunately, players most often join European clubs when they are very young. But this doesn't faze him.

"I'm not saying I've gone through a lot of stuff and no one else has. It's just that I feel like I've gone through a lot of stuff too. And then that helped my game mentally-wise and physically-wise," he says. 

"You have to pursue your dream."