Ezana Kahsay was only 10 years old and could not comprehend the danger.
All his mother told him was that they were leaving the country. With his 4-year-old sister, they drove to the other side of Eritrea and sneaked across the border into Ethiopia, walking two hours alone in the darkness.
Fortunately, they were alone in the darkness.
“No, we didn’t [see anybody],” Kahsay said. “If we do, it’s pretty much dead.”
Kahsay’s father, a former pro soccer player in Eritrea, had to give up the sport when he was called to duty in the military, but still coached Ezana when he was allowed to visit. His mother feared Ezana would also be drafted, joining his father, brother and uncle, so she found help and arranged the escape from their homeland in East Africa on the Red Sea.
“I crossed like it was nothing,” Kahsay said. “I didn’t understand the magnitude of it until now. When I look back, it was the most dangerous [thing] we’ve ever done. But God was with us, so we made it this far.”
Kahsay’s harrowing journey first took him to Buffalo, N.Y., where as refugees seeking asylum, the three were placed by UNICEF after five years in Ethiopia. Late in his senior year at International Preparatory School, he decided he wanted to play soccer at the University of Akron, even though coach Jared Embick wasn’t recruiting him.
On Friday night, the Zips’ fifth-year senior will appear in his third College Cup as UA takes on Michigan State in the NCAA semifinals in Santa Barbara, Calif. UA is seeking its second team title in school history to go with the men’s soccer championship captured on the same field in 2010.
“My journey is what got me here,” Kahsay said Monday after practice. “I wouldn’t change any of it, through the struggle and everything. It’s amazing.
“Freshman year we lost to Ohio State in the first round. Thinking we would be in three College Cups after that, it’s unbelievable. I want it to be my last hurrah, I want to go out with a bang.”
His college career has taken him far from the family’s struggles in Ethiopia, where he said fellow refugees helped each other build small homes and formed a community.
“Everybody gathers and they make you a home when you get there. It’s not the best, but it’s a very livable house. It wasn’t just a tent,” Kahsay said. “We made the best out of the place. We didn’t feel like we were out of place.”
Kahsay’s mother, father and sister now live in Houston, where his mother works in a factory and his sister just started college at the University of Houston. His father moved to America in 2017, surprising his son with a visit to Akron. It was the first time they’d seen each other in 14 years.
“He came here in spring, we were done with games. He didn’t watch me play, but I trained a couple times with him,” Kahsay said. “When I went to Houston, we did pickup and he watched me play a couple times.” Kahsay said his uncle, who played soccer for Eritrea’s national team, is now a coach in their home country.
Kahsay’s love for the game goes back to Eritrea, where growing up he and his friends would fashion a ball out of a strong plastic milk bag with a few lighter bags stuffed inside and kick it around the dirt. In Ethiopia, a coach in the camp gathered the kids and formed a team.
“We had school and we trained after,” Kahsay said. “We had a league with a tournament at the end. Whoever wins the league they would give you cleats.” In five tournaments, Kahsay earned two pairs of shoes, donated by UNICEF.
Kahsay didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in Buffalo in 2009 and enrolled at International Prep. According to a 2014 story in the Buffalo News, Kahsay was discovered as a skinny eighth-grader by a guidance counselor who saw him kicking a soccer ball in the hallway. Kahsay didn’t know the school had a team, but went on to help it win several titles.
Anthony Alessi became the coach in Kahsay’s senior year and asked the team’s leader where he wanted to play in college.
“It hit me. I never thought about it. I was like, ‘OK, let me do my research,’ ” Kahsay said. “One of the first schools I saw was Akron. When I asked the referees in Buffalo, the coaches, they tell me they play amazing soccer, they’re known for a great atmosphere of family. I said, ‘I want to go there.’ That was the plan.”
Alessi was skeptical.
“I was like, ‘Ezana, we’re in February now. Akron, that’s Division I and they’re always very strong. They usually do their recruiting when you’re like a junior,’” Alessi said by phone from the school on Tuesday. “I reached out to the coaches and they emailed me back saying if I can get him to this camp, we can take a look at him. I knew he had the size and skills. We raised money in the school to come down there, got him a hotel, round-trip bus fare and long story short they wanted him.”
They wanted him, but there was some doubt whether Kahsay would develop. Embick remembers his discussion with assistant coach Leo Chappel.
“Leo said, ‘There’s a lot there in terms of his attitude and personality. He’s very raw as a prospect technically, but we think with his mentality, if we can work with him, depending on his attitude, something could come of it,’” Embick said Monday. “So we brought him based on that with the hopes of him contributing at some stage. Then we moved him from defense to forward. That kind of fit his personality better.”
Kahsay has started 13 of 78 games for UA, including five this season as he plays behind leading scorer David Egbo. Embick said Kahsay also contributes in another way.
“What’s special about Ezana is he’s very charismatic,” Embick said. “I’ve always told him, ‘You walk the line of being a derisive figure because you let your emotions get the best of you and you can create a negative vibe. Or you can be the kind of guy that galvanizes the whole group with your personality.'
“I’ve talked to him about this almost five years. He’s walked the line, both sides. I said, ‘If anything you can do this year, please walk it on the galvanize the team side. Even though you may not play as much, you can be one of the most influential leaders we have. Everybody has respect for you, including the coaches. As a coach, I just want you to trust me on what you need to do because I think you can make a lot of plays. You’re behind a guy who’s tremendously talented but immature, so we’re going to need you some games to step up.’ ”
Kahsay has scored four goals, including two game-winners, with five assists. He had an assist on Marcel Zajac’s second goal in last Friday’s 3-2 upset victory over three-time defending champion Stanford.
Alessi said Kahsay told him stories about his family fleeing their country, of which Kahsay is now a citizen. Alessi is not surprised how hard Kahsay has worked at UA.
“We have a whole school full of Ezanas. It’s just amazing the stories they tell you in their journey,” Alessi said. “I think it makes them appreciate the opportunities that were given to them.”
A sports management major, Kahsay is driven to make the most of what’s left of his time at UA, as well as to help his mother, Besrat Araya.
“If you look back, if I can make it through all this I definitely have more in me,” Kahsay said. “That’s what I do every day, work hard. Maybe one day my mom stops working, I can take over and take care of her. She’s been taking care of us our whole entire life.”
Never more than the night they were fortunately alone in the darkness.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.