Player's soccer dream becomes an immigration nightmare

Columnist
Brooke Gemmell, Buba Jobe and Don Gemmell (Courtesy of Gemmell family)
Brooke Gemmell, Buba Jobe and Don Gemmell (Courtesy of Gemmell family)

He arrived in this country without a toothbrush, because all throughout his childhood, he cleaned his teeth with beach sand.

He grew up playing soccer: His cleats were bare soles, the grass was caked mud, and the goalposts were stones. His house was made of dirt, and the bathroom was not a room and had no bath.

Bubacarr Jobe was born in the Islamic Republic of the Gambia, or Gambia, a tiny West African nation where a third of the population earns less than $1.25 a day.

“It was tough to grow up there,” he says by phone. “We don’t have facilities that people have here.”

His passage to his soccer dream consisted of flights to Senegal, Morocco, Newark (N.J.), St. Louis, Memphis and finally Houston. After all that, he rode in a car to his new house, staring at the skyscrapers in Texas and asking, “Do people really live in those?”

Jobe, or “Buba” as he’s known, misses those Houston skyscrapers. There’s a chance he won’t see them again, because Bubacarr Jobe is a young man in the midst of a citizenship crisis. He is an athlete with a team but without a country.

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Before Kekuta Manneh earned a spot on the roster of the Vanouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer, before he became an MLS player of the week, he trained with a local club, the Rush, in The Woodlands, Texas. He mentioned to his club that he had a close friend back home in Gambia who was worthy of a shot. That’s how Buba Jobe’s journey to the United States began in 2011.

When he arrived in Texas, just 16 years old, he found himself stunned by luxuries like hot water and electricity and baffled by animals who lived inside people’s homes. His “Coming to America” tale could have been storybook.

It wasn’t. It isn’t.

Soon after he got to Houston, Buba tore his ACL. The coach of the Rush, Don Gemmell, along with his wife, Brooke, took him in. Through the rehab, the three became very close.

“He’d been living with us since three weeks after he arrived,” Gemmell says. “He really formed a bond with my wife and I. We didn’t have any other children.”

Gemmell hoped to help Buba stay in the U.S., and a lawyer advised him to obtain a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa. The family went ahead. But before that process was complete, Buba turned 18 and his visitor’s visa had expired.

“He became unlawfully present,” says John Sandweg, a former general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security. “He became illegal.”

The family wasn’t aware of this mistake until they traveled to Canada to apply for the new visa at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. Officials there looked at his case, immediately saw that Buba was in the U.S. without a valid visa, and banned him from returning to the States for 10 years.

“We were horrified,” Gemmell says. “My wife was in tears. So here we are in Ottawa. We have to put him on a train to Toronto to my hometown. Buba has never set foot on a train. It was so gut-wrenching saying goodbye. He was supposed to come back and play in the USL (United Soccer League).”

The Gemmells went back to Texas. Buba went to London, Ontario, to stay with Gemmell’s extended family.

“We all go to Canada and then I get rejected and they have to go back to the USA,” Buba says. “It was scary.”

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Corey Wray got a call about a player from Gambia. Then he got another.

“There was a kid in London [Ontario] who was quite good at soccer,” says Wray, the director of team operations for Toronto FC. “There was very little information other than that.”

Why not take a look, he figured. Couldn’t hurt to check into it. Gemmell had a good reputation. So did Manneh. And Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko had negotiated Manneh’s contract in Vancouver.

Toronto brought Buba in for a tryout and signed him to a contract with its TFC II club in the USL, the third-tier of American men’s pro soccer where many MLS reserve teams play. Maybe they’d stash him, develop him, and who knows after that.

There was, however, one problem: TFC II plays many of its games in the United States, where Buba is still banned.

“We thought once he had this full-time job, there should be no issue with his [immigration] status,” Wray says. “We’ve been trying to fight the system ever since then.”

All Buba wanted to do was go home and play soccer, but now neither of those were possible. He couldn’t travel to the U.S. with his new team, and he couldn’t see his new parents back in Texas. But the worst fear was if Buba had to return to Gambia, a nation described by a recent Human Rights Watch report as “a climate of fear.”

Buba Jobe signs autographs after practice. (Courtesy of Gemmell family)
Buba Jobe signs autographs after practice. (Courtesy of Gemmell family)

“He’s got no home, he faces the potential for persecution [in Gambia], and his adopted parents live in Texas. From the government’s perspective, he’s a threat to immigrate here,” says Sandweg. “You can understand it from a legal perspective, but from a human perspective, it’s a terrible situation.”

This is the part of the story where the pro team quietly cuts ties, right? Buba isn’t a sure star; he’s raw and he may never be good enough to even play with the top club in Toronto, let alone start. And now he’s able to play games only in Canada, which impedes the development he badly needs.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Gemmell says. “Buba’s a very good soccer player, but there are 100 good soccer players Toronto could sign.”

Yet instead of bailing out, Toronto decided to go all in. The club kept Buba in his own apartment and redoubled its efforts to help him.

“It was almost a moral obligation,” Wray says. “He doesn’t have anywhere else to go. From our club, the way we operate, family is really important. When you have someone in that situation, we all agreed this is the right thing to do. We’re going to do everything we can possibly do.”

Wray started with Toronto as an intern 10 years ago. He gradually worked his way up and now he’s leading one of the oddest projects imaginable: trying to give a prospect a life of his own. Buba had barely mastered the use of a fork and knife in Houston when all this started to happen. Now he’s living alone in an apartment and, although he does have family in Ontario, the team is basically his guardian.

“Without TFC,” says Gemmell, “who knows what happens to him?”

So now Wray is working with Bezbatchenko and USL operations director Jordan Custoreri on the Canada side, and Sandweg is working on the U.S. side. Gemmell, for his part, is writing letters to anyone he can think of, including Vice President Joe Biden. While Manneh is close to U.S. citizenship and a candidate for the national team in the future, his old friend is in immigration purgatory. Even Europe is looking less like a viable option after Brexit.

“We’ve tried to change our strategy,” Wray says. “Instead of just an entry visa to the U.S., we’re trying to have him become a permanent resident here, long-term. That ups the commitment. It shows he has a home. That’s our plan. The process is kind of a long one.”

Sandweg is also cautious. There are plenty of immigration cases like this, and those who overstay their welcome, even because of bad legal advice or a simple mistake, aren’t in a good position. “It’s an uphill battle, to be sure,” he says.

For now, Buba is doing OK. He gets to practice with his team and he’s learning to live in the big city. He just wonders if it will all go away again, and what he will do if it does.

“That’s a tough question for me,” he says. “My family is in USA. I can’t go to the USA. If they say no in Canada, I don’t think there is any other place to go.”

 

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