‘It still gets me. I’m really here’: The tough journey that led this Wilmington soccer player to his new home

As you watched him walk across the Williams Stadium soccer field toward the dressing room under a full moon following Wilmington College’s 3-1 loss to visiting Capital University in the Quakers regular season home finale Wednesday night — a game which marked the seventh start of his freshman season and served as another indicator to what should be an “incredible” career in years to come his coach said – you couldn’t help but think of another trek Bruce Anthony and his family once made toward the future.

It was an arduous, 14-year international journey — a run for their lives, really — that made for an improbable night like this on the small, serene college campus in Clinton County.

Anthony’s parents — Anthony Dominic and Atima Clement — fled Yei in the southern part of Sudan in 1996 as a brutal civil war was engulfing the country.

During what would be 20 years of deadly conflict amplified by numerous civil rights abuses — everything from mass killings, religious-inspired amputations, slavery and the use of child soldiers — 2.5 million people would die as a result of the war and the famine and disease that came with it.

Another 4 million people would be displaced.

Anthony said his father worked for the government and had to flee or he likely would have been killed.

His dad said four of his other children, who lived in another province, remained behind because the war prevented him from getting to them. He and the rest of his family (Bruce would be born on the way) fled through three other countries — Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivorie (Ivory Coast) — before ending up in Ghana.

To get there, they walked and traveled by plane and by boat. They spent a year and a half in a Congolese refugee camp, lived for a month on a boat on the Congo River and finally got to Accra, Ghana, where Bruce was born.

The family ended up in the remote Krisan Refugee Camp in southwestern Ghana, where they lived in sparse conditions for over 11 years.

Finally, the family’s luck changed, and they got passage to the United States thanks to the Catholic Social Services Refugee Resettlement Program, which brought them to Dayton when Anthony was in fifth grade.

His dad got a job at the University of Dayton, where he still works washing dishes in the kitchen of the Virginia W. Kettering Residence Hall.

After starting at Fairview Commons Elementary, Anthony eventually advanced to Belmont High School, which has an extensive English as a Second Language (ESL) program. He played basketball his first two years there – he’d suffered an ankle injury playing soccer as an eighth grader and said his dad wouldn’t let him play the sport for a while after that – but within two years had gravitated back to soccer.

Julie Raiff was the Belmont High soccer coach then, and her team was made up of players from 18 different nations.

A former University of Dayton athlete, Raiff didn’t just coach her divergent cast of players, she took them into her heart and has done everything she can to teach, protect and promote them.

That continuing embrace has become especially important these past couple of years because immigrants often have been painted with a distorted brush and made scapegoats for the gain of some politicians.

“People need to be aware these are good kids,” Raiff said the other day. “They are American citizens, even though they don’t look or talk like some of us.

“They just want what the rest of us want and that’s a good life. And when push comes to shove, they’re just kids. They didn’t drive themselves here. They were placed here and they just want a safe place to play and an environment where they can learn and contribute.”

Although Raiff is no longer the Belmont coach and teaches elsewhere, she didn’t turn her back on her former Bison players.

She’s helped get some into college after graduation. Isabella Danhoui is now playing soccer at the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima. Bibe Seko and Bungire “Kashu” Opothi are taking classes at Sinclair in hopes of transferring to a four-year school and playing soccer.

And she sold first-year Wilmington coach Alex Van der Sluijs – the former Chaminade Julienne soccer coach – on Anthony.

“I told Coach Van der Sluijs, ‘You’ll not find a kid who works harder than Bruce or will be more coachable. And you won’t find one you’ll fall in love with as much as you will him,’” Raiff said.

Van der Sluijs soon realized what she was talking about:

“When I started to recruit Bruce you could see what kind of player he was — it’s easy to identify talent — but the best part was when I got to know him. As I learned more about his character and I learned the story of Bruce – where he came from and how grateful he was to be here – it really got emotional for me.

“So many of our kids have everything and he came from nothing and still was just an amazing kid. I love him to death.”

Although Van der Sluijs has an abundance of foreign-born players on his team — several from Sweden, along with some from Germany, Norway, Brazil and Ghana — joining the school was a difficult task for Anthony, who twice fell short with his ACT score.

“The beautiful thing about him was that even though he encountered a big ‘No!’ for a while, he didn’t give up,” Raiff said “He knew if you want something, you have to work for it.”

Anthony scored well on the Test of English as a Foreign Language and was finally accepted at Wilmington the day before classes began this fall. He’s on a partial scholarship, and his dad said he’s really struggling to foot the rest of the bill, even with his son working a summer job with a temp service to try to help.

“My first day at Wilmington was kind of weird because I didn’t really know what was going on.” Anthony said. “But one of our seniors, Niklas Martensson (the team’s star), helped me bring my stuff to my room and he showed me where my classes were located.”

Van der Sluijs said that’s the way it should be:

“That’s what sports is about. That’s what Wilmington College is about. It’s opening doors and creating lifelong opportunities for someone who, not that long ago, wasn’t sure what he was going to eat, much less what his future would be.”

Although he’s been on campus a couple of months now — and with Saturday night’s final regular-season road game will have played in all 17 games for the Quakers this year — Anthony is still a bit wide-eyed about his situation:

“Some days I wake up and it still gets me. I’m really here. I’m here in America. I’m in college. This is the American Dream basically.”

Tough upbringing

Anthony said after he was born his dad gave him a different last name for safety reasons:

“Because he’d left Sudan to keep our family safe, he took his first name and made it my last name. That’s how I became Bruce Anthony instead of Bruce Dominic.”

The Krisan Camp where Anthony grew up was a melting pot of cultures, languages and religions. Some 1,700 refugees from at least 14 African nations lived there, and while he said he enjoyed some of his upbringing there, he admitted life was tough.

Electricity was sometimes turned off. There were food shortages. The roads were dirt and the living areas were often glorified shacks.

“My parents tried really hard to provide for us,” he said. “And they got creative and even put a little fence around our place. And my dad used to go to the beach to fish so we’d have that to eat. The UN tried to help provide food, and my mother made fufu from corn meal (or cassava and green plantains) and okra soup.”

One thing Anthony did enjoy were the daily soccer games, most impromptu, though there were also some teams.

When they were chosen to finally come to the United States, Anthony said he was sad, scared and excited.

Sad to leave his friends and scared because he knew little about where he was going.

“I didn’t know anything about America except what I saw on TV or from the music I heard,” he said.

“I knew of Michael Jackson and a lot of rappers. They’re famous in Ghana, guys like 50 Cent, Nelly and Jay Z.

“And I remember seeing the movie Rush Hour.”

As for athletes, he said he knew of Muhammad Ali, “Everybody knows Ali.”

He’d heard of Michael Jordan, but said, “I didn’t follow basketball.”

Soccer – or futball as he knew it – was his sport, but when he finally joined the Belmont team, he didn’t realize what was required of him.

“When I started to coach, Bruce wasn’t coming to practices,” Raiff said. “That was kind of a pattern at Belmont, but I got in my car, took Kashu with me and we went over to Bruce’s house on Rockwood.

“They said Bruce’s room was upstairs. I went up and the door was locked, so I knocked, but he didn’t answer. I figured he was in there and I said, ‘Bruce, you need to come to practice every day.’ And from then on he responded and he ended up being one of our leaders.”

Anthony, who’s 19 now, smiled as he talked about Raiff and her impact on his life and that of his other Belmont teammates:

“She’s like my mom. She has a big heart and just wants to do good for people. This season she’s come here to see some of my games. She always looks out for us. She’s the best there is.”

Finding a home

Coming out of Belmont, Anthony had his sights set on playing for the University of Dayton, where his dad works.

“He was putting all his eggs in one basket, and to make him understand better, I took him to UD and the coach was kind enough to talk to him. He told Bruce what he needed to work on to play at that level and what schools might be best for him now.”

The number of international players on Wilmington’s roster initially surprised Anthony, and he said he felt more at home when he realized that mix included two other freshmen from Ghana — Elorm Dogbey, who went to Dunbar and DECA (Dayton Early College Academy), and Michael Owusu, who went to Bellbrook High and now shares a dorm room with him.

He said his transition to college life — he’s majoring in exercise science — has especially been aided by Van der Sluijs:

“Coach is an amazing guy. It was tough to adjust to college life for me — I didn’t know what to expect — and he’s been on my back to make sure I pass my classes.

“And the teachers here really want you to succeed and will help you if you ask. All the people here are great.”

He even knows the school chef: “His name’s Jim. He cooks a lot of chicken Alfredo and stuff like that. He’s a cool guy.”

While Anthony said “I definitely like it here, there’s nothing better than this,” his dad worries if he’ll be able to finish because of the cost. He said he doesn’t make a lot of money, his cars are broken down and his wife is dealing with loneliness and is not working now.

An older son, Justin, is working, and daughter Anna is going to Sinclair and has a 1-year-old daughter named Miracle, who Anthony laughingly said, “is very stubborn.”

Van der Sluijs hopes Anthony — a midfielder who scored a goal against Muskingum this season — remains a Quaker:

“He has had a huge impact as a freshman and that’s hard to do at the college level. And what we’re seeing from him now is nothing compared to what we’ll see from him as a senior. I think he can be a really great player here.”

Anthony Dominic, Bruce’s dad, has high hopes as well:

“I have this dream in my head. One day this boy will do something special.”

Really, he already has.

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