For a moment, Jules Ohelo thought he was staring at himself.
Albeit, it was a younger version of the man who fled the Congo with his family in the mid-1990s and ended up in Deer Lake in 1999.
While helping out at a refugee camp in Malawi earlier this month, Ohelo saw a young kid booting around a soccer ball.
He was drawn to him. The child was skilled — probably the best Ohelo had seen.
Now, standing in front of the small African boy with the soccer ball made him think of a time two decades ago.
It wasn’t too long ago when Ohelo was that kid. He was skilled with the ball, learning some English at school and forming every plastic bag he could find into a soccer ball.
As he looked at the young boy, Ohelo kept asking himself one question: Why are you so happy?
The boy had nothing. No permanent home, no stable source of education or anything that could be confused with a life of any kind.
Yet, there he was smiling and waving while kicking around a soccer ball made of plastic bags.
Ohelo couldn’t understand it.
Sure, he remembered being a young boy in the same situation. He remembered being happy.
But, reflection is a funny thing. It helps you see your mistakes and allows you to become a better person because of them.
He wasn’t looking back on the past through the eyes of a child. Ohelo was seeing it as a man who knew what the boy had been through, what he was living with now and what was to come.
Ohelo only had one pair of trousers and had to walk to get water. There was no reason to be happy.
All Ohelo and this child had was a makeshift soccer ball. It set him free and he knew it was the reason for the child’s smile.
When Ohelo got to his new home, the soccer ball continued to change things for the young man. He instantly showed he had an ability to play the game at a high level. That led to success at the local and provincial levels before he received a scholarship to Cape Breton University.
“The soccer ball changed everything,” said Ohelo from his home in Fort McMurray. “Canada gave me a gift.”
He was in Africa to retrace the steps of his escape. He was there to re-live the perilous journey that took him from Zaire, a country with a history of civil war now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo
When he left, he was told not to come back.
Ohelo did it for himself and for his children, Jayden, aged seven, and nine-year-old Neveah Noella.
He went to show Africa he wasn’t afraid anymore.
Ohelo and his family left Zaire in 1994 after the death of his father. He was 14 when he started the journey. From there his family made their way through Rwanda.
Rwanda wasn’t easy. In 1994, the small African country was in the midst of its own civil war that started in 1990.
The Ohelos moved from there to Tanzania before settling in at a refugee camp in Malawi. They walked for three weeks to get to their final destination.
They had no food or water and had to survive on what they could find on the road.
His recent trip back to Zaire gave him the opportunity to see a country he thought he’d never see again.
He travelled the same route back to the Congo that he took to get away from it.
The roads were the same, but the places had become more populated and the scenery had changed.
During the trip he reconnected with kings of villages and thanked the people who had looked after the grave of one of his uncles. Ohelo was a part of a group that helped restore the grave.
When he left Africa, there was no social media. There was no way of communication that could help them keep track of family as they fled.
Some people thought his family went to South Africa to escape. They never dreamed they would end up in Canada.
Likewise for Ohelo. Using social media, he was able to track down lost family members in an attempt to orchestrate reunions with them.
He wanted to catch up and get reacquainted with people he hadn’t seen for a long time. That led to many tearful reunions.
That included one especially poignant moment.
The trip to Africa gave him the chance to get reacquainted with a grandmother and an uncle he thought were dead.
Imagine discovering you had a grandparent who was still alive after going 20 years thinking the opposite?
What would you say?
How would you react?
It’s impossible to answer either of those questions unless you’re in the situation. I image you would shed a couple of tears and ask how this happened.
Then, you’d sit and share the story of your life.
Realistically, you can only hope to cover it all. You probably wouldn’t. In between hugs and more tears, Ohelo told his grandmother everything he could and vice-versa.
“It was very emotional for me (to go back),” he said. “There were people that you never expected to be alive. I thought they were dead.
“I had forgotten what it was like.”
There were other members of his family whom he didn’t get to see. Ohelo was limited to just 24 hours in his native Congo for reasons related to his father’s death.
When he reached the border, the government officials who met him took his passport and told him to be in the same spot on his way out of the country the next morning.
There were people he missed because of it.
Thinking back on the trip, Ohelo pledged one thing: He was going back. He’d go back with actual soccer balls and uniforms.
And, this time it wasn’t going to take him two decades to get there.