In 1999, Sierra Leone entered its eighth year of civil war. The West African country and its citizens were embattled and their hopes for peace quickly dissipated as the Abidjan Peace Accord of 1996 prematurely ended.
Freetown, the country’s capital city, was about to become besieged by rebel Revolutionary United Front forces who had already mercilessly slaughtered scores of innocent civilians.
Cognizant of the horrors caused by the brutal eight-year conflict, Isatu Dainkeh realized the harsh consequences that would follow. In perhaps the biggest testament of a mother’s love, she decided to send her 3-year-old son, Suliaman, to live with his father Alferd in the United States.
“My mother stayed," said Suliaman, now a soccer player. "A few of her friends were coming to the United States, and she made me come with them. I came straight to Washington, DC. My father was living here and he worked at Dulles, so I stayed with him.”
It was the first of many international flights the now 16-year-old would make.
You could say that soccer was Dainkeh’s childhood escape, more than just a sport. While he vaguely remembers his first encounter with a soccer ball, he effortlessly recalls memories of kicking one around the living room of his father’s Northern Virginia home.
“I remember that I used to play with my cousin when I was little. We played in the living room and would break stuff,” he said with a laugh. “We used to get in a lot of trouble with my dad for doing that.”
Dainkeh has since traded his father’s cozy living room for the soccer fields at South Lakes and abroad. The junior defender is widely regarded as one of the region’s elite soccer players and has already verbally committed to play soccer for the University of Maryland in 2013.
He is also a member of DC United’s U-18 Academy team. John Maessner, former DC United Director of Youth Development, scouted one of Dainkeh’s Reston Knights club soccer games two seasons ago and extended the invitation after watching him play.
“He called and then came to visit with my dad and family and me," said Dainkeh. "It was a good feeling, but it was bittersweet because I was leaving my club teammates who I was really close with. But I knew that if I wanted to get better and make it to the next level, I needed to play top-level soccer.”
Marty Pfister, Dainkeh’s coach at South Lakes (5-4-4), says Dainkeh's maturity belies his age. Pfister first coached him on varsity as a freshman and has watched his young player blossom athletically and become a more vocal leader on the field and in the locker room.
“He’s the easiest out of all of my players to coach," said Pfister. "You would think that he might have an attitude or cockiness about him because of how good he is, but he doesn’t. He’s just a great person in general. It’s funny. Ten years ago, when I first started coaching, I always thought that your best players might be the hardest to coach.”
And although Dainkeh has the athletic ability to realistically have a career in professional soccer, for him, a career in the legal arena seems just as appealing.
“It’s always very difficult, but he has the chance to play professionally. But if you ask him what he wants to do, he’ll tell you that he wants to be an attorney,” said Pfister. “He might be one of the few players in that one percent who have the shot to be a professional, but he says he wants to go to Maryland and then be an attorney.”
Despite the obstacles he faced as an infant, Dainkeh has defied the odds. And if you’re curious to know what happened to his mother, she survived and still lives in Sierra Leone. Although she hasn’t watched her son play soccer in nearly six years, the two communicate by phone at least twice weekly and plan to reunite when he enrolls at the University of Maryland.
For now, father and son will continue to walk the path they were made to travel 13 years ago.
“He’s been a good influence to me. He tells me to follow my goals and he’s really not that hard on me. He gives me good advice and tells me to do my best in everything that I do,” he said.