Two months ago, Gizzie Kolako came to school at Northern Durham High with puffy red eyes from tears, a lack of sleep or a combination of both. His Northern boys’ soccer teammates and coaches understood why.
Kolako, whose uncle Gizzie Kollie brought him to Durham from Liberia for a chance at a better life six years ago, often calls his parents in Liberia, where the Centers for Disease Control reports 2,413 people have died from the viral hemorrhagic fever Ebola. Kolako said the news often results in tears and a night of tossing and turning.
“My parents are staying home instead of working to protect themselves from Ebola,” said Kolako, who added his parents remain virus free. “Other people are doing the same in Liberia. My uncle has been sending my parents money for food so they don’t have to work.”
Soccer coach and algebra teacher Mike Tetreault’s Northern Durham team (14-5-1), which has five players from Africa, has advanced to the third round of N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A soccer playoffs.
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The Knights play Middle Creek Wednesday at Northern at 6:30 p.m.
The five players with African ties give short answers when asked what it means to them to come to America for school.
“ ‘Opportunity ... no civil wars ... a chance to get a good education ... no hunger ... freedom ... no terrorists ... no Ebola.’ ”
“They are fantastic students, and they are tutors for other kids,” Tetreault said. “I have had their teachers tell me, ‘If they have younger brothers or sisters coming up, I want them in my classes.’ ”
In addition to school and soccer, Kolako, a junior, attends the Emily K Center on Tuesday and Thursday. The Center, named for the mother of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, is designed to help students gain entry to college.
“I want to do something with my life,” Kolako said. “I want to go into the medical field. My dream would be to go back home to build a hospital and help people.”
Kolako recently had his photo taken with the Duke coach. He showed the picture to Tetreault and asked, “Coach, who is the old guy in the photo with me?”
Tetreault said, “ ‘Gizzie, you must be the only person in the state who doesn’t know Coach K.’ ”
Napolean Manley is a junior who arrived four years ago from Sierra Leone, a nation that borders Liberia. About 1,500 people have died of Ebola there.
Manley’s father worked in Durham and was able to reunite his family.
“I was excited because I knew it was a chance to better myself,” Manley said. “We all came here for a chance to improve our lives.”
Benji Osei is a senior from Ghana, another West African nation. He came to America last January.
“Life in Ghana was always a struggle for food, and there were robbers and terrorists,” he said.
Prince Mutabazi is a freshman. His family left the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa for Rwanda. War broke out in Rwanda, and they moved to Kenya. Finally, they were approved to come to America four years ago.
“I have some freedom I never had before,” he said. “I have choices for a better life.”
George Bukenya is a senior and American-born citizen. His parents are from Uganda, but attended Campbell University and N.C. Central University.
“I’ve been back to Uganda with my family,” he said. “There is a lot of sickness and very little modernization.”
Soccer, the international game, provides a common thread for diverse teammates.
“We might stick out in other places,” said Bukenya. “But on the soccer team, we’re all the same.”