By Katherine Lewin | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Rostand Ndong Essomba’s sister passed away unexpectedly, he was 14 years old.
So he quit playing soccer to focus full time on basketball. This was a strange thing to do for a young boy who loved soccer, especially since Essomba and his friends considered basketball a “girl sport” at the time because it is played using hands instead of feet. But he did it to honor her.
“I was kind of just scared and traumatized about what was happening around me, and I decided to learn basketball because my sister always wanted me to play,” Essomba said.
Little did he know that turning his focus to basketball would lead him on a wild journey from his home country of Cameroon to Stockbridge, Georgia, when he was 17. Once in Georgia, a nightmare became reality for Essomba and numerous other international athletes: a nightmare that would eventually turn Essomba and his friends into witnesses in a human trafficking investigation spanning several government departments.
He and other young athletes were promised full scholarships to the high school Faith Baptist Christian Academy North. Essomba was supposed to study and play basketball there – the American dream. Instead, he spent months scavenging for food and basic necessities while sleeping on the floor without heating or air conditioning. He barely went to school or played basketball while he was there.
Essomba and three of his fellow athletes who also went through the Georgia ordeal were featured in a six-month Bleacher Report investigation in 2016, “Lost in America.” It dove into the traumatic experience the boys went through and overviewed the trafficking of foreign athletes into the United States by private schools.
While Essomba feels frustrated and traumatized about the experience, he doesn’t feel angry with the people who initially brought him to the United States on the empty promise of a full scholarship.
“As soon as I got out of there, I made a quick call to move on. I’m holding no anger against them. Nobody deserves to go through things like that but I think it happened for a reason,” Essomba said. “I learned a lot too from that and I met some amazing people that I wouldn’t take out of my life like Lora and David Donley and their family. What came along with that is countless blessings, and I don’t hold any anger because I know I’m not even done yet reaching my goals.”
Essomba is not someone who enjoys the spotlight, so going through a federal investigation into what happened to him in Georgia and then participating in an in-depth journalistic investigation afterward wasn’t something that suited his personality or character.
“I don’t like attention. It was overwhelming. Sometimes I was saying no, I don’t want to talk. But I did because I understood that I needed to testify so the government can find ways to prevent it from happening again,” Essomba said.
When “Lost in America” was eventually published, Essomba had just graduated from Lake Wales High School after being rescued from Faith Baptist Academy. He was considering several scholarship offers at universities around the country, but not for basketball. He had found his way back to his first love: soccer.
“I needed a mental break following everything that I’ve been through. I was like, you know what, I need to stop a little bit the basketball because I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I was feeling really discouraged and kind of disappointed about all that was happening,” Essomba said. “I took a month break and one day, I saw some kids playing soccer at my high school. I was like well, maybe I will go kick with them for a little bit. Then I fell in love with it and played the season with the team.”
The rest is history. Essomba is now a sophomore at Flagler College majoring in business administration and playing for the soccer team.
“I had better offers from bigger schools, but this school was able to help me as best as possible to make me follow my dreams, so I ended up here. I really love and respect the coach. He’s a really great man, really caring and really nice,” Essomba said. “He’s like a dad before being a coach, so that’s something I was missing after spending three years without seeing my family. I was definitely missing someone who would embrace me like that.”
Because Essomba is still considered a witness in the ongoing investigation into Faith Baptist Academy, he is allowed to remain in the country legally without a student visa. But he can’t leave the United States and be allowed back in under his current “deferred action” status.
Essomba hasn’t seen his mom, dad or three sisters since the day he said goodbye to them in Cameroon in October 2015. He talks to them twice a month, but for him that isn’t nearly enough.
“Talking to my family every once in a while is giving me a lot of happiness,” Essomba said. “Every time I see them is precious.”
Even after all of the trials Essomba has been through, he still looks for ways to stay humble, find the little blessings in daily life and remember what everything up to this point has taught him. He attributes his consistently positive outlook to his parents.
“My dad, my mom, they did everything they could to make life less hard for us because back home it’s not easy. They tried their best to teach us good manners and the way we should approach things,” Essomba said. “They showed us how to treat other people, how to be nice, how to be kind, how to be respectful, and a lot of other things. And I love them for that.”
Along with meeting life-long friends, Essomba is also thankful for what happened in Georgia because of the lessons he learned along the way. He increased his capacity for patience and compassion, especially after living with people from many different countries. He also now has a realistic view of the United States, in sharp contrast to the perfect fairytale land that people in Africa are shown in the media.
“My view of America is different; it’s more clear. When you live in Africa not knowing what it is like here, you think it’s only what you see on TV that you’re going to encounter,” Essomba said. “So when I came here, as soon as I landed at the airport, I saw things were different. But I learned that there’s a lot of beauty even in the struggle and ugliness, and there’s success and there’s joy.”