U-17 MNT Forward Alex Nimo
Every aspiring soccer player remembers receiving his first pair of soccer cleats and ball. For U-17 MNT forward Alex Nimo, this memory remains deeply engrained in his mind.
April 17, 2007
ESCAPING A CIVIL WAR
“I remember I actually went to sleep with the soccer ball in my hands and my shoes under my pillow cause I was so excited,” said Nimo.
Having grown up in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana, Nimo has a unique story that spans continents and hardships before bringing him to the Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.
To capture just a glimpse of his tumultuous past, the story leads back to the country of Liberia at the onset of a political strife in 1989. A group of rebels, later to be known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, invaded a small county in Ghana and started the First Liberian Civil War, which was to last until 1996. When Nimo was born in 1990, the hope of peace was far beyond reach and Nimo’s parents fled to Ghana with their children, seeking refuge in the Buduburan Refugee Camp, which had been created for the purpose of offering sanctuary for the thousands of Liberian refugees.
For Nimo’s family, there was the hope of protection and refuge within the refugee camp, but for Nimo’s father, Tommy, there was now the overwhelming burden of financially supporting his family. During the family’s time in Liberia, Tommy had been working for the government and had been financially stable. Upon the family’s arrival in Ghana, his past experience failed to offer any advantage, and he soon found a job as a bus driver, working odd hours into the night.
“He’d go for the whole day, and sometimes he’d come back and I wouldn’t even see him because I was still asleep and he would leave at six in the morning,” recalls Nimo. “Sometimes, it would go like that for a month.”
At the time, little Nimo couldn’t grasp the gravity of the situation, and only years later did he understand the sacrifices his father had made for his family. While his father worked day and night supporting his family financially, Nimo remembers that there were many others in the camp less fortunate than his family.
“I was young at the time; I didn’t understand the death of a person or somebody who died,” he said.
As many refugees struggle to find food and medication for illness, death took the lives of people who couldn’t fend for themselves. Nimo remembers being on the streets and his mother covering his eyes as they passed dead bodies on the street, yet this didn’t shield Nimo from the truth that people were dying every day.
“If he’s not your neighbor, (the person dying) is two blocks away,” said Nimo. “Every morning you’d wake up and somebody was dead. Sometimes someone was laying in your front yard…dead.”
At the tender age of nine, Nimo and his family were finally granted political asylum to escape the overwhelming destitution. With financial support from Catholic Ministries, the family was scheduled to move to Portland, Ore.
When Nimo’s father told him of their move in the United States, Nimo quickly turned to a world map to find his new home.
“I looked on the map and I couldn’t see Oregon,” he said. “I had heard of New York but I didn’t know where Oregon was.”
Regardless of its unfamiliarity, Nimo’s family was excited about the move. For Nimo though, it was several months before he found his own niche in Portland.
SOCCER AS AN ESCAPE
Back at Buduburan, soccer had become a passion for Nimo, as it had been for many other young Liberian refugees at his camp. Every Sunday, everyone from your neighbor’s grandma to your little brother went to the soccer field to watch the games. The fields were packed and for the duration of those games, the soccer players were revered as heroes.
This was where Nimo had his start in soccer. His brother was five years older and was a member of the soccer team, and Nimo spent many years pleading with his brother to teach him how to play. For a while, Nimo and his friends kicked around a ball made of old, ratty socks and Nimo would use the streets of the refugee camp as their private practice field. Oftentimes, his father would scold him for leaving the house without permission. For Nimo though, it was all worth the effort, because his older brother noticed he was actually improving and began to train him.
When Nimo was eight, he was finally old enough to play with the camp teams and after a successful tryout, he was allowed to train with his brother and all the other older players. For an aspiring soccer player, training might seem like the golden ticket to stardom, but for Nimo it was the contrary, as all he remembers from those sessions is running.
“I thought, ‘Soccer is too much running,’” said Nimo. “You don’t play soccer, you just run.”
What was a disappointing introduction though eventually led to his first soccer game. One day, when Nimo’s brother had to sit out a game because of an injury, Nimo was told to grab his stuff and head to the field. With one brother traded for another, Nimo was given the opportunity he needed to show off his skill. After that successful debut, Nimo was given regular time on the playing field.
After a year of refugee camp soccer with his fellow teammates and coaches, Nimo undoubtedly sensed a pang of sadness when he was told his family was moving to Oregon. What had become such an integral part of his life seemed to slip away at the prospect of moving continents. Nimo wasn’t familiar with the U.S. sports scene and feared losing the opportunity to continue playing soccer.
THE SOCCER DREAM CONTINUES
For months after arriving in Portland, this continued to wrack Nimo’s thoughts and only after countless pleadings did his father inquire about information on soccer teams in the area. In 2000, Nimo and his brother hopped on a bus to make the trip to the FC Portland Academy tryouts at the University of Portland. When Nimo took the field with his brother on the Under-14 team, the pair was unstoppable, and his introduction into soccer in the U.S. became a day he wouldn’t soon forget.
“We both understand each other and we both have chemistry,” said Nimo. “He knows what kind of runs I can make so he was just giving me the ball and I kept on scoring with all these big guys on the U-14s.”
It didn’t take long for former FC Portland head coach Clive Charles to notice the youngster continually knocking the ball into the net despite going up against players five years older. Charles, who passed away in 2003, was also the head coach of the men’s and women’s soccer teams at the University of Portland and a former assistant for the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team, and was known for his ability to eye talent. On this day however, just about anyone could have picked out the nine-year-old Nimo.
At the time of the tryouts, Nimo and his brother didn’t even have cleats, instead wearing indoor tennis shoes to play on the outdoor fields. At the end of the tryout, Charles presented both them with their first pair of cleats and offered to drive them home. Charles spoke to Nimo’s parents and offered both boys a full scholarship to the FC Portland Academy.
Nimo attended the FC Portland Academy with a full scholarship and additional financial support for school supplies and clothes until making another step in his young soccer career in January of 2007. After receiving his citizenship, the door was finally wide open for Nimo to join the U.S. Soccer Under-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.
U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team head coach John Hackworth said Charles informed him about Nimo in 2003 and that he got to meet him during a trip out to Portland to scout players a year later.
“Right away we knew he was a good player, but he didn’t have citizenship at that time, so we basically had to wait to see if he would get his citizenship by the time he was old enough for the Residency Program,” said Hackworth. “He was high on my list for almost three years and thankfully, he ended up getting citizenship. We brought him in as soon we could.”
Nimo has only been with the Under-17s for three months, but has already made an impression on the coaching staff.
“Since he’s been here he’s done very well,” said Hackworth. “It’s a tough position to come into, but he’s done exceptional and we hope he will continue to improve. He’s definitely pushing for the qualifying roster and could even be a starter for us.”
What was a long and arduous road for the now 16-year-old seems incomprehensible for many other youth soccer players. Even after eight years in the United States, Nimo continues to find it difficult to share his story.
“It hurts me when I bring it up and sometimes someone will say, ‘That’s Africa,’” said Nimo. “It is Africa, it is what people go through, but you don’t understand it until you actually go through it yourself.”
What remains a difficult story to tell today will hopefully be openly shared in the future. With many friendships developing in Nimo’s life, he has found support within his colleagues.
“Actually, a friend of mine talked to me and said, ‘Don’t think about it just as negative, but as a positive…as something that can help somebody else with their life, because if you can go through it, somebody else might be able to go through it and keep strong,’” said Nimo.
As the years pass and Nimo grows from his past hardships, he has much to look forward to in the future with the U.S. Youth National Teams.
“I want to make the team for U-17 World Cup qualifying and I want to be on the team for our first game against Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.
As he continues his training at the U-17 Residency Program, Nimo seems to be on a straight path for success in U.S. Soccer. And even beyond 2007, his hopes and dreams stretch far into the future—three years to be exact.
“I pray to God that I can be able to play in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with the U.S.,” said Nimo. “That’s my goal for right now.”