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Sierra Leone's class of 2003: Unisa Bangura

Footballers learn from their surroundings, and Unisa Bangura, a goalkeeper from Sierra Leone's 2003 under-17 world youth championship squad, is no different. He currently plays in Finland's Ykkönen division, the second highest tier, but his footballing education began much earlier.

Bangura sits in his apartment in Helsinki, gesturing frantically.

“You run here, you run there, you don't run straight – they are faster than you, so you go to the empty space, keep moving,” says the goalkeeper.

It would be easy to mistake these tactical instructions for football strategy, but Bangura is actually talking about ways to avoid a beating in Joensuu, the eastern town with a reputation for skinhead violence where he and many of his team-mates first lived in when they came to Finland. The strategy was a good one, and it owed a lot to an upbringing in tumultuous 1990s Sierra Leone.

When your life depends on rapid evasion, as it did for most inhabitants of 1990s Freetown, you become quite good at avoiding threats, and Joensuu's skinheads were no match for the fleet-footed sons of Sierra Leone. Bangura still finds it difficult to speak directly about the war.

“Nobody can tell you the actual picture in words,” says Bangura. “Sometimes you say that you wish you had a camera at certain times in your life so you can replay certain things...... when you have been in a country where they have overthrown the government twice, and there is no military that can protect you...”

Blessed country with a chance of progress

He is more forthcoming on current Sierra Leonian politics. He describes the country as “blessed” with natural resources, but believes foreign intervention has hamstrung attempts at harnessing that wealth for development. The absence of war has opened an opportunity for progress, though, and he is hopeful that the current government can provide a more secure future for Sierra Leonians.

Now resident in Tapulikaupunki, a north Helsinki suburb, Bangura left his home country in 2003. He was one of the country's golden generation, some of the most talented footballers Sierra Leone had ever produced.

“In West Africa we don't see Sierra Leone as small in football. It was just the war that was affecting us, because we were also challenging. And in our zone for us to qualify for the African Championships, we had to be good. We played Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea... a lot of good countries.”

That under-17 team came second in the African Championships, losing to Cameroon in the final. Their excellent performance opened a door to the World Championships in Finland, where the team again impressed but went out in the first round. The natural rhythm of the Finnish summer was quite alien for the African teenagers.

’There is no night, how can I sleep?’

“I rang my friends back home and they asked 'why are you up at midnight, you should be sleeping!'. I said 'there is no night, how can I sleep?'. I spent the whole night up, awake, because it was still light. It was a really incredible experience for me. Because I wanted to make sure!”

Despite nocturnal difficulties, the boys were impressed with Finland. More than half the squad did not return to Freetown, remaining in Finland to claim asylum.

“We did not discuss it beforehand,” says Bangura. “If we had, the whole team would have stayed.”

Bangura made the decision late, and slipped out of the team's hotel the night before they were due to return. The trickle of team-mates in the asylum reception centre strengthened his resolve, and he has no regrets about staying in Finland.

“This is closer to what I still believe I will do in the future,” says Bangura.

His footballing ambitions have stalled somewhat. Now at PK-35, a club in the second tier, he has played for a number of Finnish teams and his coaches speak highly of him. His physical prowess is impressive, and his shot-stopping is first-rate, but one former coach says his positioning and tactical awareness let him down – faults easily remedied given a certain amount of coaching.

This kind of coaching is necessary for most refugees to get daily tasks completed once they arrive in Finland. Soon after he left Joensuu to live in Helsinki, Unisa and a few of his team-mates took a course at Helsinki's Deaconness Institute to help his integration process, where the lecturer was former basketball player Maurizio Pratesi.

Financial support a priority

Young sportsmen offer a different challenge for integration workers, but the refugee experience is remarkably similar across professions. Finding appropriate, well-paid work in the right professional field is difficult for everyone, but financial support for those left behind is a universal priority.

“I know they support family back home,” says Pratesi. “Even when they don't have much, they send some back home each month. It's unbelievable how Unisa can save money.”

Bangura and Pratesi formed a lasting bond. Pratesi is now godfather to the elder of Unisa's children, and the two are in regular contact. Unisa currently works for Ice Hearts, an association dedicated to fighting social exclusion through sport, where he tries to encourage children from immigrant backgrounds to spend more time playing football.

His personality and skills seem perfect for the role. His wife and children anchor him firmly in Helsinki, and he is keen to emphasise his international, multicultural background.

“I have my own culture, but I want to adopt the Finnish culture too. Don't be surprised that I am a black man living in Finland. I live here, I have family here.”

This is the second in a three-part summer series probing the fates of Sierra Leonean footballers who came to Finland for the 2003 under-17 World Championships.