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Soccer and Lemonade Stands: Growing Up in a Refugee Camp

Soccer and Lemonade Stands: Growing Up in a Refugee Camp

When I heard that UNICEF’s pilot Young Ambassador program in Los Angeles was hosting a conversation with Paul Lorem, a refugee from war torn South Sudan, I was eager to attend. His remarkable, unlikely journey from the desolate Kakuma refugee camp to Yale University — a story Nicholas Kristof chronicled for the New York Times — captivated me. I wondered how he overcame so many seemingly impossible obstacles: growing up in a remote Sudanese village without a school, health clinic, or electricity, his home ravaged by civil war, his friends turned child soldiers, victims of violence and disease. To save him from this fate, his parents abandoned him at the refugee camp in Kenya, leaving him to be raised and cared for by a gang of young boys known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. On the brink of applying to college myself, I marveled at his achievement.

As UNICEF board member Christina Zilber asked Lorem about his experience in the refugee camp for this audience of elementary and middle-school kids, I braced myself for an emotional account of Lorem’s early struggle and loss. But another, surprising story emerged. He spoke of playing soccer and lemonade stands. He reminisced about relaxing and roughhousing with his friends. He went to school, and like many young boys, even liked to hate it. Life in the camp was a kind of “paradise” to him. “I never wanted to leave the camp,” he said, wistfully. “It wasn’t all tragedy — it was my normal life.”

The UNICEF Young Ambassadors, most of them more acquainted with summer camps than refugee camps, excitedly peppered Lorem with questions about his lemonade business, his soccer games, and even his Yale application. I was struck by how easily they conversed with him, seeking connection. Most of all, in their exchange, I saw how the joys and innocence of childhood could transcend borders and squeeze through dark circumstances. It didn’t seem to matter to Lorem that his soccer ball was not really a ball but a makeshift sphere made with scraps of found materials. At the time, it didn’t matter that his 300 person school was held outdoors, under a tree, without notebooks or pencils, or that he had to write his assignments in the dust. Perhaps a child’s capacity to live and desire to thrive is universal.

As Kristof reminded us when he interviewed Lorem last year, the “blunt truth” is that “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” Most of the world’s 42 million refugees do not thrive. Talents wither. In a way, Paul Lorem was nurtured. The Lost Boys raised and protected him, teachers advocated for his education, and many others along the way believed in him, saw his potential and talents, and helped him navigate his way to the Ivy League. After he finishes Yale, he plans to return to Sudan “to rebuild my country.”  Perhaps the lesson of Paul Lorem is that even if human talent and childhood spirit is universal, ultimately it is his sense of human responsibility that will make a difference.

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Photo credit: "Boys Playing Soccer" by Arsenie Coseac

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12:21AM PDT on Apr 13, 2013

May he go from strength to strength

9:24AM PDT on Apr 12, 2013

I'm completely indifferent to soccer/a.k.a football, but if it galvanizes people, and gives them a lifeline and something to look forward to, then all power to them.

11:06PM PDT on Apr 10, 2013


4:48PM PDT on Apr 10, 2013

Thank you for sharing Paul's story. He certainly had a candle lit amidst all the darkness of his life. It's easy to question why one child is fated by birth to face a life of poverty, war, disease..., but Paul's vow to "rebuild his country" makes that question, at least in this instance, feel less arbitrary by design.

3:26PM PDT on Apr 10, 2013

as others said, good that they are making good of a bad situation, I hope one day they will have a better life.

12:25PM PDT on Apr 10, 2013

inspiring, thank you

11:21AM PDT on Apr 10, 2013


11:20AM PDT on Apr 10, 2013


9:34AM PDT on Apr 10, 2013


9:33AM PDT on Apr 10, 2013

Nice that some good came out of a bad situation.

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