There are days when all Shamsoun Dikori wants to do is to juggle a soccer ball.
Despite the wounds of war and the scars of unimaginable loss, when Shamsoun touches a soccer ball there is always a smile on his face.
"Touching the ball is beautiful, you know?" Shamsoun told TODAY correspondent Tiki Barber. "You just looking for someone to pass it to, you wanna do a move. It’s like a million things going on in your head at the same time, but they’re all happy things."
On a recent day, Shamsoun plays soccer with a group of fellow former refugee on a small field in Clarkston, Ga., but there was a time when he played soccer barefoot, surrounded by the lush grass fields and mango trees of his native home — the Nuba Mountains in Central Sudan. Life was simple then, and at its center was Shamsoun’s mother, Samira.
“My mom, she was like, she cared for everybody,” Shamsoun said. “She always … wanted for the best for her kids, and my father, also. He worked hard at the farm. And then he comes at night, he’s tired. But, we have food for him over there and he just sits down. My mom tells us stories at night under the moon. Everybody’s sitting outside —the stars. It’s a beautiful place.”
The Sudanese civil war — a conflict that would claim the lives of more than a million people, and displace many more — shattered Shamsoun’s idyllic world.
“The planes, they come at night. Nobody expects them to come," he said. "You see a bomb dropped over here and you see one … you see somebody’s arms is cut off. You see somebody’s leg is cut off, and you running for your life.
“There was a little girl and she — she got shot. And it was, like, the end of her life. And that was my first time seeing somebody get killed. And it was a little person.”
Shamsoun was the oldest of six children. To save their lives, his family had to keep running. After two years of incredible hardship, Shamsoun and his family arrived in Atlanta in May 2000.
Shamsoun wasn't a refugee any more, but he faced different battlegrounds: a poverty-ridden neighborhood in Stone Mountain, Ga., and a school with racist students who reminded him every day that he was still an outsider.
When the rejection, and even hatred, was too much for a young boy to bear, his mother admonished him to stay strong. Her dream for Shamsoun was for him to be the first in the family to go to college.
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"They just ignorant,” Shamsoun said his mother would tell him. “What’s the point of focusing on them? It’s just — it’s just you and school work and that’s what’s gonna make life better for you and your family.”
November 27, 2002, was supposed to be a relief from the daily struggle as the family packed into their minivan en route to a Thanksgiving celebration. It was night when the car swerved off the road.
“The car moved real quick," Shamsoun said. "And then it flipped over a couple of times. And after that everything went blank for a moment."
Shamsoun heard a voice and felt his father pulling him out of the car.
"When I looked in his eyes ... he was trying to tell me something happened. Just, the face that he had on was the saddest face I had ever seen. I turned my head around. And I call my — my little brother’s name. I was trying to call my mom.”
There was no answer. She had died in the crash, as did Shamsoun’s sister and his two youngest brothers.
“The world fell apart, you know," Shamsoun said. "I guess it’s just bad luck following me wherever I go.”
Shamsoun instinctively knew there was an escape, if only fleeting, from the depression and sense of abandonment he now felt. Bad luck, after all, had never followed him onto the soccer field. He’d heard from a friend that Coach Luma Mufleh had put together the Fugees, a soccer team made up of refugee children just like him. He decided to try out.
“The minute he stepped on that field, you saw his huge smile, you know? And you’re like, wow. Like he loves it. Like the minute he got on, it was like, “ok, this is the kid we want,” Luma said.
Coach Luma asked Shamsoun to join the team, and she had a curious request — bring your homework to training.
“I said, ‘You’re a student-athlete. Your academics come first because you’re nothing without it.’” Video: Soccer team gives hope to refugees
“It was my mom’s dream for us to become somebody,” Shamsoun said. “Coach became like a mother to me, because she’s telling me the same thing my mom told us, you know? The school, the school, that’s the most important thing for you.”
Together, coach and refugee, set out to fulfill a mother’s dream.
“It took me a little while to realize that mom was gone,” Shamsoun said “There’s nothing that you can do about that. So, I try to work hard. I try every day to work hard in school so I can make her happy. Even though ... she’s not gonna come back and see me, and smile a smile for me. I won’t be able to see her smiling at me, like, you know, when I’m graduating.”
The painful memories will never fade, but they’ve given rise to determination and perseverance and, for the first time in Shamsoun’s life, a future.
Shamsoun has earned a full soccer and academic scholarship to Pfeiffer University.
“I’m pretty excited, man. I’m like the most blessed kid in the world right now,” Shamsoun said. “I’m gonna do nothing but study. But at the same time I’m gonna keep on playing the game that I love, soccer. So when I get to the top one day, I’m gonna be like, ‘See, I made it I’m still standing.’”
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