Translator: Adrienne Lin
Reviewer: Denise RQ My name is Alex Owumi. I’m a professional basketball player. The game of basketball
has taken me many places all over the world, to different regions, has taught me a lot of fundamentals
which made me the man I am today, has taught me to be a great leader and also to never give up
when my back is against the wall. The game has taken me everywhere, and that meant
some great people along the way, people I call friends
with different religions of the world. [But today I’ll talk
about people from a religion] that did something for me that I, till this day,
can not even repay them. I’m the son of a Nigerian man
and an American woman. And I’ve lived in America
since I was 11 years old. I’m happy to say I come
from both of these places. I’m happy to call myself an American, and I’m happy to call myself
a Nigerian also. I know what a lot of you are thinking, and I’m not here to talk
about my love for America, even though I do love the place. Like I said, I’m here
to talk about a religion that saved my life. In December 2010, I got
a professional basketball contract to play in Benghazi, Libya, for a team named Al-Nasr Benghazi. The team was run
by the infamous dictator Muammar Gaddafi who had a strong hold
on the country for 42 years. Willingly, I took the contract. I mean, my love for basketball was so deep
that I was willing to go anywhere to play. This round piece of leather has brought me
to different parts of the world, has made me happy, and has given me the opportunity
to feed myself and feed my loved ones. Around the same time
I got to Benghazi in December, the Arab Spring
began in Tunisia and later spread to Egypt, and a couple of months later
it made its way to Libya, to the second biggest city, Benghazi, which I called my home at the time. On a Thursday morning, February 17th, as I stood on top of my building, I witnessed hundreds of people die right in front of my own eyes. I saw a great city turn into a war zone, women assaulted right in front of my face, and I’ve lost some of the closest friends
I’ve ever had in my life. For 16 days, I confined myself in my own apartment, scared to go outside, scared to risk my life, and even take a chance
of escaping that place. Looking out of my window, I saw little girls drag their fathers as blood gushed out of their body. I was scared for my life. And within those 16 days, it’s sad to say, I lost all faith in God, I lost all faith in mankind, and I lost all faith in myself. I didn’t want to live anymore. Along with a driver and a teammate
of mine named Moustapha Niang, I decided to take a risk. We tried to flee Benghazi and head to a safe haven
of Salloum, Egypt, which is on Egyptian–Libyan border. The drive was going to take 6 to 7 hours, but it ended up taking 12 hours. Within this long drive
on this long desert road, we ran into several different checkpoints where rebels would pull us out of our car, take our luggage
and throw it on the dirt roads, kick us down, and point
AK47s in our faces. At some point you see your best friend,
a guy who you made this great bond with, look at you and cry. And all you could do is hold
his hand and tell him that: “If this is our last day living,
let’s live it together.” Frightened on this road trip
to Salloum, Egypt, we eventually made it there. And when we get to the gates
of this refugee camp, hundreds of people are scattered around. Imagine a makeshift refugee camp
where we are housed in a prison yard of one of the biggest prisons in Egypt. Frustrated, and angered, and feeling the same frustration I felt when I was in Benghazi
and when I was confined in my apartment, my behaviour became very erratic. Some of the people who were sleeping
outside in this prison yard, that they called refugees, had been there for days; some, weeks. I took it upon myself
to start yelling at prison guards and demanded that I talk to my consulate so I could start getting home
back to America. But it didn’t matter. Me being American
didn’t matter at that time and eventually I was thrown
in the cell at the bottom of the prison. For 2 hours I sat there, in the dark — prison cell with no windows — rats crawling up my leg, urine on the floor, and I sat there and cried for hours, screaming, wondering
how I got to this place; how this round piece of leather, the game I loved and have been playing
since I was a kid in Nigeria, would bring me to this place. I gave up on life, and I didn’t want
to live anymore to be honest with you. Eventually, I was let out
of this prison cell, taken back up to this prison yard
where they housed all the refugees, and I slept outside for three days. On the third day, it started raining. Me and my teammate, along with another
couple of refugees who were Nigerian. were sleeping in the mud, sick with the rain, cold rain,
hitting our bodies. I was fed up and the one most important thing
I needed to do was get back to my family. So we decided to escape, illegally, risking our freedom, not knowing
what would happen to us. Eventually we escaped the refugee camp and got to the other side
of the refugee camp. We navigated through mud,
we navigated through ground; feet soaked, muddy. We see a bunch of buses
meant for Egyptian nationals only. I walked up to a bus
and knocked on the door, the bus driver opens up;
it’s now four in the morning. He looks at me up and down.
He knows something’s wrong. Then he asks me for my papers. I showed him my passport. He tells me: “This bus
is for Egyptian nationals only.” I’d beg, and I’d plead with him, and I’d give him all the money
I had left in my pocket. Money didn’t matter to me anymore,
I just wanted to get home, to see my mother and my father
and hold their hands. Eventually, he let us on the bus, shooed us to the back
of the bus, and sat us down. Me, personally, I had
to get to Alexandria, Egypt, and this bus was headed for Cairo. So I plead with the bus driver
to get me to a bus going to Alexandria. For minutes at the time,
we argued with each other. And he finally decides
to let me off the bus and takes me to another bus
headed for Alexandria. We get to another bus
a couple of minutes later. The bus driver opens up, and they both start
to engage in a conversation. The bus driver looks at me;
he knows something’s wrong. He looks at my face and in my eyes. I mean, I hadn’t brushed
my teeth in weeks, I hadn’t had a decent meal
in almost a month. My eyes were bloodshot red,
I hadn’t shave, and I was weak. He knew something’s wrong with me;
he decided to let me on the bus. And I thanked him
as I soon as I walked on. But as I walked on,
something magical happened. I looked on this bus
and I saw 50 men, 50 seats filled. As soon as I walked on that bus,
I could feel their piercing looks piercing through my body. I walk on the bus and the bus driver
shoos me to the back. I get to the back of the bus;
no seats were left so I sit on the floor. I mean, I was just happy to be there. This was the beginning
of my journey home to see my family. I sit down, and all I could do
was to just close my eyes trying to retrace my steps in life. How did I get here? Were my love for basketball, for money,
more important than my own life? Was it more important than the love I have
for my family and their love for me? Eventually, the bus starts rolling. It went Algeria to Alexandria. The bus driver driving the bus stops. He looks at the back of the bus
and tells a man who I’m sitting next to — he speaks to him in Arabic —
to tell me to get under the seat. I didn’t know what was going on,
so I willingly just listened to him. I got under the seat
and he covered me with a duvet. Before I got under the seat, I looked outside the bus
and saw a bunch of Egyptian military about to board this bus. At this point I think I’m caught;
I know my freedom’s done, I know I was going to be put
in a prison cell again, for a long period of the time. We had to get to this last checkpoint. I see an Egyptian soldier get on the bus
as I’m laying under the seat. For minutes at the time, I hear
his footsteps walking through the bus checking everybody’s papers. My heart is bumping, and literally,
about to jump out of my chest. I am frightened. He gets to the back of the bus,
and checks the last person’s papers. And walks off. The man sitting next to me
tells me to come up. And as soon as I come up, all these men
on the bus are now looking at me. Are they riding along with a fugitive? They didn’t know who I was. They didn’t really care
about if I play basketball or not; they really wanted to know
who they were risking their freedom for. They wanted to hear my story. So on this 7-hour journey I was going to tell them
where I came from, everything I did, how I got to Salloum, how I got to Libya. For the first couple of hours,
all the man huddled around me, and I told them where I’m from,
where I was born, how did I get here to Libya. They looked at me in shock. Some couldn’t speak English, so
their friends had to translate for them. The looks on their faces were priceless. Who would’ve thought
[they] would meet a professional player? (Laughter) Let alone one who has escaped a civil war (Laughter) and lived. So for the first couple of hours
I sat there and I talked to them. And these men knew they needed
to do something for me. They needed to help me rebuild my life. We get to a service station
on the side of the road. It’s not your typical service station
you see here in England. I mean, they did sell food,
but, you know, it’ll do at the time. I didn’t have any money, and as the men walked
in this establishment to get food, they offered [some] to me. Like a stubborn grown man, I say:
“No, let my pride do the talking.” I mean, my body was hurting so bad that the aroma from the food
alone was hurting my insides. I sat there. Again, I let my pride do the talking, and I watched these men
go to the side of the building to throw away their scraps
into a trash bin. I sit there and look at them. And as they go throw it away, I ease myself
all to the side of the building. I walk up to the trash bin, and I look around in embarrassment. I put my hands in it
and I start looking for scraps, anything I could eat
— scraps of chicken, bread — any leftovers. The flies [were] buzzing around,
I didn’t really care. Seconds later, a man touches my shoulder. I kind of get startled
as if I’m being attacked. He looks at me and he says to me, “Come. Come and eat.” At this point, I didn’t really
know what to say. My body was so weak
that I was on one knee; he extended his hand, and I took it,
and he walked me inside. He sat me down at a table and bought me a meal. I sat there and ate this meal. This was the most uncomfortable meal
I’ve ever had in my life. As I was eating, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had turned into a monster. How was I going to come back from this? At this point, I knew
that I didn’t want to live anymore. I didn’t want my family
to see me like this. my brothers and sisters,
all my loved ones. So, then and there, I made the decision
that I will literally take my own life at some point within this journey. As we get back on the bus,
we continue to roll towards Alexandria, I continue to tell these men my story, but most importantly,
they continue to talk to me. They gave me a different
type of education. They [educated me] on the Arab region, about the injustices done to their people. See, the media were painting
a picture that we all watch on TV to make these people
look like they’re animals. But me, for one, I’ve seen
the good they did to each other, and the good that they’ve done for me. One of the men asked me: “When you get to Alexandria,
when will you leave? When will you go see your family?” I answered that question
the most honest way I could. And I told them: “I don’t plan on seeing my family. And I know they don’t plan
on seeing me like this.” He looked at me, and for a second,
he felt my pain, the pain in those words. He knew he had to do something,
and they, as a group of men, too, to help rebuild this person. He tells me: “You are the most important person
on this bus right now. You are the key to a lot of things
going on in the world.” And at that time,
I didn’t really care to listen to him. My mind was already made up. And I was going to go through
what I had to go through. A couple hours later, we stopped
at another service station. But this time, these men
of Muslim origin had to go pray. I get off the bus, and, as they’re going to their prayer room
as they washed their feet and their hands, I take it upon myself to say
my own prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. This was unusual because, like I said, when I was confined
in my apartment, I gave up on God. When I was confined
in my apartment back in Benghazi, I did something that wasn’t original. As a Christian man,
I’ve always asked God for forgiveness. But when I was there, stuck, hungry,
almost died of starvation, going crazy, I told God I forgave him. As I sat there with a blade in my hand,
ready to take my own life, I had to thank him. I had to thank God because he had
given me 26 years on Earth, he who knows the man whenever asked for, who gave me love and parents,
gave me brothers and sisters, who molded this man you see today. And for him to let me take my own life —
“Lord, I forgive you.” And at that point, I was ready. So for me to sit there, get on
one knee and say the Lord’s Prayer, it was tough for me. But as I started reciting it, I felt very comfortable. Two men walked up to me, picked me up on each arm. They tell me, “Come pray with us.” This was unusual because Muslims
and Christians can’t pray with each other. I walked into this prayer temple, and the man says: “You can pray to your God here.” I have never felt so comfortable ever
praying in my lifetime. And I knew my life had took a turn. Within this 7-hour journey, I had got a newfound education on life. It wasn’t about basketball anymore. It wasn’t about money.
It wasn’t about me. It was about two different worlds
coming together. We finally get back on the bus, to get to our final destination,
to Alexandria. All the men get off the bus, I walk up
to the bus driver and give him a huge hug. He asks me if I am OK, and I say yes. I get off the bus and hug
every single man there. And thank them. What was unusual was, as my coach was coming
to pick me up from the bus station, all of these men waited there for me. They waited for him to show up. They could’ve gone on and done
whatever they had to do that day, but they wanted me to be safe. They didn’t want me to go on my own again, they wanted to make sure I was going
someplace where I could call home. And I did it, with a smile on my face
as I watched them all leave. I cried, and I was comfortable crying, because I knew I had
50 angels watching me. People from different religions,
no matter what race or religion, came together, and they helped mold
the man you see today. I’m happy, literally, I’m happy. And I thank them for doing this for me. I had to tell their story here today. Hopefully they’re watching,
maybe they’re not. But I know when you guys go back home, you know I did some [good] here today. I thank them and I thank you. (Applause)

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Dennis Veasley

11 thoughts on “How I nearly died playing basketball for Gaddafi | Alex Owumi | TEDxBrixton”

  1. OMG Did NATO not save you? Yea you were a lucky lad to escape 84 bombs a day by a load of Countries bombing the shit out of the Libyan people saved a massacre oh sorry I suppose Gaddaffi would have killed more than that because we were told so, and we in the West hear & see no evil.

  2. Alex Owumi I heard you were not even in Libya and didn’t play for any team in Benghazi! It’s a shame you making money off a lie 🤦🏿‍♂️

  3. Alex Owumi I heard you were not even in Libya and didn’t play for any team in Benghazi! It’s a shame you making money off a lie 🤦🏿‍♂️

  4. Powerful story. Didnt think it was gonna be good at 1st. But he's a great story teller. I cud picture what he was saying……

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