Originally published in the East Valley Tribune
The scars on his left leg are a constant reminder of a time when he ran for his life, not to evade a tackle. Othello Kossigbo looks like any other member of the Phoenix Arcadia football team.
The junior placekicker/fullback stretches, runs, and does drills.
He listens intently as coaches bark out instructions. He laughs, whines and cracks jokes like every other teenager. But his scars aren’t the marks of typical teenage brashness. They’re not from cleats or asphalt. They are bullet wounds.
And they only begin to tell his story.
‘THEY KILLED MY SISTER’
Kossigbo never heard the gunshots.
He was asleep in his home in Liberia, a tiny country in West Africa, when the rebels attacked.
Samuel Doe was president then, and Kossigbo’s father was the assistant superintendent for Maryland County.
A group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, entered the country intent on overthrowing Doe. Kossigbo’s house was on the outskirts of Maryland County, thus it was one of the first attacked.
His mother and father heard the rebels’ gunfire coming from behind their house. They got out, but didn’t have enough time to warn Othello.
He didn’t hear the commotion until it was too late.
“I had no idea (the rebels were coming),” Kossigbo said. “I didn’t hear the shooting. When I woke up, the entire house was surrounded by the rebels. They were asking me for my dad.”
Kossigbo denied knowing his father’s whereabouts. He and his pregnant sister — who he calls Wilson-girl — tried to get away.
But the rebels caught up and started arguing amongst themselves.
“They were arguing whether (his sister’s unborn baby) was a boy or a girl,” Kossigbo said.
One of the rebels decided to end the debate, thrusting his machete into her stomach and cutting out the baby.
Mother and child died as Kossigbo watched in helpless horror.
“They told me to laugh (at her death), but I wouldn’t,” said Kossigbo, his voice a mixture of pain and anger. “They killed my sister.”
Enraged by his defiance, the rebels shot Kossigbo twice in the leg. Then they threw him in jail.
He was 8 years old.
ESCAPE FROM JAIL
Kossigbo knew he had to get out, but escaping from jail was a risky proposition. Get caught, and death was just a formality.
It wasn’t a traditional jail with cast-iron bars, but one with high fences and a gate. It sat in the heart of Maryland County.
Guards were on alert, and the chances of getting away weren’t great.
Kossigbo weighed his options and then made his move. He waited until the utter darkness of 2 a.m. and scaled a fence. He escaped unnoticed, and trekked two days to the safety — from the rebels at least — of the African jungle.
By a stroke of luck, Kossigbo ran into an old hunter from his tribe while bathing in a jungle creek. The hunter helped remove the bullets from his leg and taught him how to survive in the wilderness.
But soon the hunter died of disease and Othello was left to fend for himself again. He ate plants and bananas in the jungle, worked in the villages for food, and kept searching for his mom and dad.
Caution was a necessity.
Sometimes he would sleep in the jungle. Other times, he would lie amid corpses so as to not be noticed.
“If you were walking at night, (the rebels) would shoot you,” Kossigbo said.
He lived like this for seven years.
STROKE OF LUCK
Othello’s first stroke of luck came at age 15 when he made his way from Liberia to the Ivory Coast. He was homeless — living in the streets — when he contacted the United Nations.
They set him up at a refugee camp and paid for him to go to school.
The plan was to keep him in the Ivory Coast permanently, but violence broke out there as well. The United Nations contacted the United States government, and plans were made for resettlement, where Kossigbo could begin a new life in America.
“It was like a dream come true,” Kossigbo said.
But the dream took time.
While the proper paperwork was being filed, Kossigbo waited.
Almost two years passed in his new home — a refugee camp that was safer than Maryland County, but far from perfect.
Rebels often jumped the camp’s fences, terrorizing those on the inside. Kossigbo was a favorite target because the rebels wanted him to join their cause.
“They would beat me, tie me up, leave me in the sun for hours,” Kossigbo said. “They wanted me to hold a gun, but I wouldn’t do it.”
Kossigbo persevered, and a little more than a year ago, his travel plans were finalized. Othello Kossigbo was on his way to Phoenix.
The American way was a culture shock, but Kossigbo accepted it with open arms.
“Everything here is under control,” Kossigbo said. “There are a lot of rules here, but I really like that. Where I came from, people made their own rules. You do what you want to do.”
Kossigbo was originally placed in a house with five roommates who had gone through a similar experience in the Sudan. But their ideals were so different that Kossigbo said he had to leave.
“They would bring back prostitutes to the house and a lot of other things,” Kossigbo said. “So I left and got my own house.”
Kossigbo moved into a onebedroom apartment at the Arcadia Commons. He got a job as a dishwasher at the Arizona Biltmore to pay his $570-a-month rent bill.
The government provided him with food stamps and medical care, but that ended after four months.
“Once I started working, they took everything away,” Kossigbo said.
Eventually, Kossigbo got acclimated to his surroundings. He enrolled at Arcadia and joined the soccer and track teams. He attended church. For the first time in a long time, his life felt normal.
FINDING A HOME
Thomas Dom first met Othello at his son Matt’s soccer practice in January.
“He was just a really good kid,” Dom said.
When Thomas and his wife, Rosemary, learned of Kossigbo’s living situation, they asked him to come live with them.
Matt and Othello now share a bedroom.
“He was quiet at first, but he’s really relaxed now,” Thomas Dom said. “It seems like it’s working out fine.”
Kossigbo has his down days, but not unlike anyone else, Dom said.
Certainly not like before.
“It’s a real credit to him,” Dom said. “He’s picked up his life.”
Unlike the character in Shakespeare’s tragedy, this Othello might still witness a happy ending.
Kossigbo’s parents managed to survive Liberia’s civil war, and are now living in the Ivory Coast.
He talks to his mom about twice a month.
“I didn’t believe that she was my mom (at first),” Kossigbo said. “I began to question her on where I was born, my nicknames. But she spoke my dialect and answered the questions, so I knew it was my mother.”
Kossigbo said he has no interest in moving back to Africa. Even visiting there — with citizenship issues and the constant violence — would be complicated.
“It’s pretty unstable,” Thomas Dom said. “He’s not in a hurry to get back.”
But if there’s one thing he wants more than anything, it’s to bring his family to the United States.
“I want to try, by all means, to bring my family over here,” Kossigbo said. “I just feel so sad whenever I see my friends with their parents. I want to be with them again, so bad.”
Kossigbo has another dream, to play either soccer or football professionally. Statistically, the odds are against him. Then again, they have been all of his life.
“I wouldn’t put anything past him,” Arcadia football coach Jim Bevell said. “He’s an amazing kid.”