Somehow, the driver that took us to a ten minute meeting left and did not come back for forty-five. It was now less than two hours before departure for us and a team of refugees, all of them carrying temporary travel documents on their very first international flight. It was now, again, nervous time.
After about eight confusing phone calls, I was told that the driver was on his way to take us back to the UNHCR office, and we would then leave from there with the team. Not good. That could easily mean another forty five minutes. Instead, I suggested they grab the guys and meet us at the airport.
At the airport, it was slow going to get the boarding passes for everyone, but we were moving, and it was feeling not real. This is happening!
Sixteen players, dressed in their green adidas gear and looking sharp–and wide-eyed–made it to the departure gate, after going through different, sometimes repetitive steps.
As I was looking at them get in line to leave the gate, Moubarak Khamis turned to me smiling and asked for me to get in front of him. We walked out of the gate to the bus that would take us to the nicest plane I have ever seen. I’m sure it was the same as other planes, but to me it glowed as if saintly on the tarmac.
Every guy would get on the bus and give me a big smile, and I would call their name, loud and with joy: Abdelhamid! Mahamat! Mahamat! Moubarak! Abdelbassid! Ismail! Mahamat! Moubarak! Saleh! Souleyman! Yaya! Aboubakar! Mahamat! Moubarak! Saddam! Youssouf!
I felt so proud and also very responsible for all of these young men, and the words of Saleh’s mom were present in my mind: “Take care of him as if he was your own son.”
The plane started to move, and I have no words to describe my feelings at the time it began to accelerate and then shot up in to the sky. As soon as the seatbelt sign went off, I got up and went to see every player, shake their hand and share some words.
We landed in Addis Ababa, and we walked through the airport, the guys looking all around them and talking and laughing. We found a open space to sit on the floor and wait out the hours we had until the flight to Istanbul. I asked the older Mahamat, “How do you feel?”
He pinched himself on the arm and said: “I have to be pinching myself because I think I am dreaming.” So do I.