The Kalonji Soccer Academy (KSA) ranks top in the GA Youth Soccer Association, and two of its teams have qualified for Nationals in Kansas. The teams left July 21 and will return on Sunday, July 28, 2019.
The kids have been working hard. Almost every morning this summer, they ran Stone Mountain at 7 a.m. and finished practice at Central Gwinnett Park by 9 a.m. Then at 6:30, they were back at the park, practicing until 10:30 at night.
The rigor of their training may seem a little unorthodox to some, but as parent-volunteer Kisha Cameron says, “This is what champions do. And these kids are champions.”
Kisha’s son attends Woodward Academy in College Park and joined the team only a few weeks ago. She’s one of five parents who can afford to pay membership fees, and even though her son didn’t start early enough in the season to compete with the others, she’s glad her dues will help pay for some of the travel expenses. Unfortunately, it’s only a fraction of what they need.
About half of KSA’s players are refugees who live in the areas around Clarkston, Stone Mountain, Tucker and parts of Lawrenceville. Most of the kids come from low-income households.
“We take kids that cannot afford to play, and we give them an opportunity so, the developing of the kids. We’ve won a lot of games; we’ve won a lot of titles. Of course, people are always hung up on the title, but we’ve also put a lot of kids in college and get them out of the street and driven to do something positive. That’s really the bigger picture,” said Coach Bruno Kalonji, who founded KSA as a nonprofit in 2014.
Coach Bruno is accustomed to incurring most of the Academy’s expenses. But with upcoming costs for hotels; charter buses, which may cost anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 for the week-long trip; Bruno estimates their travel expenses will come up to $20,000. Taking into account they just sent five teams to Louisiana for Regionals in June, it seems the team is quickly outgrowing their bank account.
Coach Bruno tries to keep a glass-half-full perspective in all this. “[At times, it seems] we don’t want to win more, because we don’t want to pay more. But the only way you get that exposure is by playing in those high leagues. [There you get] exposure in terms of college scouts and sponsors, so it’s important that we get there because of the exposure.”
For many of the boys, their success in competitive soccer may be their only ticket to college and out of their crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“They gave us a better chance to show our dream and to make our dreams come true, you know and to make our parents proud,” said Siem Beraki, their Central Midfield who attends Clarkston High School. Slowly he admitted, “We live in Clarkston . . . there is a lot of gangsters in there. It takes about five minutes to be on the wrong side. But soccer keeps us busy to get out of the place, and we come here every day about four days, and on Saturday and Sunday we have games and stuff, so we don't be in that place a lot, and sometimes we go to Coach Bruno's to have sleepovers and stuff.”
Fifteen-year-old Siem is a refugee from Eritrea. He now lives with his four siblings and aging father. His oldest brother, who is 24, is the family’s main breadwinner.
The details of their trek from Eritrea into Ethiopia are blurry. It was an eight-hour journey, and there was about a seven-month wait in a camp before they could come to the U.S. And shortly after they arrived, his mom left suddenly. “My mom had to leave from the house because there were some problems. I don’t know what happened,” Siem said.
Coach Bruno came as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, while head coach Borfor Carr, or just “Coach Bof” as the kids know him, came with his family from Liberia. Both he and Coach Santino Jerke started playing for Coach Bruno at young ages. Having been through the program, they know just how much winning Nationals would mean to the kids.
“It’s huge. It puts them in the spotlight and to be recognized by a lot of college coaches. We’re already getting looked at by some of the major schools, and that’s the goal for the majority of them,” said Coach Bof, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Liberia. Coach Bof lead a successful career as a professional soccer player for years before returning to Gwinnett to give back to the kids in KSA. “There is no better feeling,” he said.
Coach Santino fled Sudan after his father was taken from their home by Rebel Forces. He reunited with his father in Egypt and United Nations assisted their family in coming to the U.S. Coach Santino began playing for Coach Bruno at age 14, and after years of mentorship, and he received a scholarship to Brewton-Parker College in Mnt. Vernon, Ga. He, too, wanted to come back and help other refugee kids find success through soccer. “I grew up loving this sport and this game, and that’s how I ran into coach Bruno . . . I got into college through his program. I’m back, now, helping him with everything he needs because he needs all the help,” Santino said.
“We’ve graduated a lot of kids every year, so we’ve definitely grown, and believe it or not, we’re growing more and more in underprivileged kids because we have vans that go out and pick up the kids in Clarkston and Stone Mountain, and more and more kids want to jump in the van, and kids went to come and play. We start struggling a bit on that because, I guess, for now, we’re limited in how many kids we can help,” Coach Bruno said.
Coach Bruno admits their dynamic is different. He has three of his own kids, and he’s adopted six more who stay with him in his home in Snellville. Their house is full as they host and feed many of the kids who come over.
“Being part of KSA, I think it’s like a pretty big thing for me, you know. It’s like, it’s not the same club as other clubs. It’s very welcoming. It’s like we are a family. The team is so good. I don’t know how to say it, but it’s just so good. KSA is like...Coach Bof, Coach Bruno, they like my dad, you know,” said Daniel Vahnie, KSA’s Right Defender. Daniel fled Burma on foot with his family as a small child and now attends Tucker Middle School.
The teams left for Nationals on Sunday, July 21, 2019, and will return Sunday, July 28. The team of players born in “2004” has already qualified for semi-finals and the “2001” team may do the same if the win their next game.
“And, you know what? I think they’re going to take it,” said Kisha Cameron who is helping to spread the word to potential sponsors to help cover the costs of the trip.
KSA has mentored numerous players who have gone on to play for well-known international and domestic teams including Atlanta United. Learn more at https://kalonjisoccer.com.