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Hostility to hope

Soccer, providence and the love of his ‘American mom’ helps former refugee find his footing following a war-torn childhood in Africa 

by John Bach

Athletes draw from all sorts of emotional wells to ready their minds for competition. UC soccer forward John Manga taps into an ocean of emotion from a horrific childhood.

Waiting for UC’s No. 9 in the undertow are memories of kidnapped parents, an older brother thought to have been murdered and unspeakable acts — rape, beheadings and suicide — that he witnessed as a child.

Manga, a 19-year-old sophomore, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa in 1994 just a few years prior to the First Congo War. By age 6, the war would reach his doorstep.

“When I was very young, things were pretty normal,” recalls Manga in a still-thick accent. “I went to school like every other kid. All my uncles played soccer at the professional level, and I was starting to pick up on it a little bit, too.”

During those calm years, before rebels invaded his hometown of Bunia, he and his three older brothers — Philip, Pierre and Jacob — shared a six-bedroom home with their parents Jonathan, a missionary, and Christine, a French teacher at the nearby school.

“We were a pretty wealthy family,” Manga says. “But when the civil war came, we pretty much went from having everything to having nothing.”

Abductions and murder

His father had left on a mission trip in January 2001, two months before all hell broke loose. The family had no idea it was the last time they would all be together.

“It was complete chaos,” says Manga of the invasion. “At first I didn’t realize what was going on. Then I started hearing gunshots, and I realized there was something definitely wrong.”

Christine and her four sons — the oldest, age 12 — fled for their lives. They would later find out that rebels shot their neighbors in the streets, set up camp in their home and were driving the family car. They also would come to discover that their father, Jonathan, had been kidnapped when he attempted to return to search for his wife and children.

Mom and the boys found safety in a Catholic mission, which would become their refuge for the next two years. Until tragedy revisited. In June 2003, John’s brother, Jacob, left for school, but he never returned. Rebels had taken over his school. Until recently they assumed he had been killed.

That same summer, their mother left the mission with two other women to search for water. She, too, was abducted. Christine’s last words to her son, Pierre, were direct, simple and foreboding: “Take care of your brothers.”

It was a near impossible task considering all that was closing in on them. One day, for example, John, then 9, witnessed something he has never been able to put out of his head. Though it was too dangerous to venture outside even to use the outhouse, he had stepped out briefly to get some relief from the pungent smell of urine inside the mission. Peering from behind a tree, he watched a deadly fight between two men that ended with a severed head rolling across the ground.

Running for their lives — again

Within a week of their mother’s disappearance, Pierre grabbed his brothers and dashed for the nearby rainforest. His premonition proved lifesaving considering rebels soon stormed the mission and shot the priests when they refused to reveal the direction in which the boys had escaped.

Pierre recalls the terrible time in an essay: “Because of the thickness of the rainforest, you had a better chance of not getting hit by the flying bullets. We were so tired. But for the first few miles, I could still hear gunfire, so I did not dare let them rest. I had to carry John a lot of the way as food had been scarce in the previous days, and he was pretty weak.”

Eventually alone in the jungle, the three brothers — already having endured the loss of half their family — were now forced to trudge 180 miles through the world’s second largest rainforest, a place known for its cobras, puff adders and pythons, just to name a few of the deadly snakes. They traveled for many days and nights while doing their best to ignore the screeches of baboons, grunts of wild buffalo and even the watchful eyes of a lion that was only 10 feet away, yet allowed them to scurry by unharmed.

“The moment I knew God was with us was when we made it to this fairly wide river,” Pierre writes. “It was at the end of the rainy season, so it was full and moving quickly. There appeared to be no way to cross. I tried making a rope and holding onto it and the boys, but I nearly drowned us all.

“I remember sitting down and praying, and then just waiting. Several hours must have passed, and then God answered my prayers. A large tree fell across the river and formed a bridge. The boys and I climbed across on our knees.”

The Manga brothers finally reached a village near the city of Beni. Exhausted and hungry — but safe — they spent the next several months begging on the streets, until someone recognized them as the missing boys listed in a Red Cross bulletin. As it turned out, their father, who gained his freedom in Kenya, never gave up his search for his family.

A family reunited

After three years without their dad, the boys and Jonathan were reunited in March 2004. Even the joy of that moment, however, was robbed when they had to break the news about their brother and mother. Classified as refugees in Kenya and forbidden from working, Jonathan and his sons got by on handouts from an area church and resorted to applying for relocation to the United States, which came through in February ’05.

John Manga was nearly 11 when their international flight touched down in the states and they settled, with the help of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, into an apartment in Lexington, Ky. Though his dad had multiple degrees in Africa, he could only find employment as a data entry clerk making $9 an hour. So they scraped by.

Jonathan, overwhelmed with trying to raise the boys on his own while battling post-traumatic stress disorder, slipped into a depression. Most nights they didn’t eat until 10:30 p.m. when Pierre returned from his job at KFC to feed them before doing his homework.

It was December 2006, and once again things seemed hopeless for the Manga brothers, not terribly unlike a few years prior when they were stranded next to the river with no way to cross.

Only now, they were marooned in middle America, struggling to learn English and barely able to eat.

As Pierre puts it, “God was again faithful in answering prayer.” Only this time he didn’t send a tree. He sent a breast-cancer survivor and single mom whom the boys would come to know as “Ms. Paula.”

An ‘American mom’

Paula Hollis is a 54-year-old social worker and real estate agent with an eastern Kentucky drawl. She was preparing to be an empty nester when her youngest daughter, Kirsten — then a senior at Henry Clay High School — told her about the African boys at her school. 

They had no winter coats, and their toes were clearly stretching their undersized shoes. Hollis gathered up gift cards from her church and took the boys shopping. But that single kind act soon turned into regular stops to look after them.

“It became my routine to leave work, pick up the boys, and we would do homework, laundry and eat dinner,” Hollis says. “Then I’d take them home at bedtime.” Within a year, Jonathan agreed to co-guardianship with Hollis, and they moved in with her.

“Ms. Paula is a great woman,” declares John. “She played the role of our mother. Even now, I still consider her my American mom.

“She treated us like her own children. We were kids from a different country, and she showed us so much love.” Hollis says that John, then 12, was incredibly shy and skeptical when they first met, not to mention malnourished and untrusting. “He was not the John Manga I now know,” she laughs, pointing out his jokester personality. “He just seemed so sad then. But he saw so much, and he wanted to be careful that he wasn’t going to get hurt again.”

She recalls the early times when John and Philip would run for her bed during a thunderstorm, dive under the covers and lie still. The storm was a reminder of the AK-47s that haunted them as kids.

As good as life had become with Ms. Paula — John even fell in love with soccer again at age 13 — the Manga boys’ lives took yet another unexpected and amazing twist when they learned that their biological mom had been found alive in the Congo. Christine arrived in 2010 to embrace her family again — after seven years apart from them.

“After thinking for so long that you’ve lost somebody, and then you see them again, it is just a great feeling of relief,” John shares. “I am so fortunate to be with my parents again, unlike all the other kids who never got to see their parents again.”

John Manga, pictured here at 12 years old
John Manga is pictured here at 12 years old soon after he came to the United States from Africa. The audio above is from an interview with Paula Hollis, his 'American Mom' who took both John and his brothers in to live with her for several years.

More recently, according to Hollis, the family has learned that John’s brother, Jacob, actually may have survived the school attack in which he was reportedly killed and was raised by another family in the Congo. They are hopeful he may join them in the U.S., too.

These days, when John isn’t living on campus, he is staying with his parents in their apartment in Lexington, but he still sees Hollis about every other day. And he can count on seeing her in the stands of all his home games.

Found his ‘peaceful place’

John credits soccer for helping him put his wrecked childhood behind him. He went on to lead his high school to the 2010 state soccer championship and was named Kentucky Mr. Soccer in ’11. “Soccer is where I found my peaceful place,” he says.

On scholarship with the Bearcats, John chose UC over schools such as Louisville and Wake Forest, which also recruited him. He is currently an undecided major, but he is considering a degree in international social work so he can help others.

“John is just a delightful person,” says UC soccer coach Hylton Dayes. “He has seen so much of life at a young age, but he has never portrayed himself as a victim. I look at him as a survivor.

“He’s just a great young man and a very talented soccer player. Plus, his story is an inspiration to others.”

Due to injuries on the team last season, Manga, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall and 195 pounds, found his way to the field as a freshman, scoring his first goal in UC’s first conference game to help beat Pittsburgh. Dayes expects him to take on an even bigger role this year on a team the coach thinks could pace the league.

While John doesn’t say much about his past around the team, Dayes can’t help but notice when Manga allows the pain from his past to motivate his play.

 “John is driven internally,” says Dayes. “There is no doubt when we see it come out on the field. It comes from his core. And when he is able to channel all that, he is tough to handle. He develops an edge and aggressiveness that makes him even more dangerous.”

In the 2012-13 academic year, UC distributed more than $6.7 million in scholarship support to hundreds of student-athletes in 19 varsity sports. “Donations are critical for UC to be able to attract the best, most talented and unique individuals,” says Dayes. “Those donations give kids like John, and any other kid out there, a tremendous opportunity.”

Parting shots

photos/Ashley Kempher

John Manga playing soccer versus Xavier.
John Manga playing soccer versus Xavier.
John Manga playing soccer versus Xavier.

Video: One of Manga's high school highlights