“What are you planning to take to Kansas?” I ask. He frowns. “Besides my clothes?” Then his face lights up. Chanel Benoit, all 2.05 meters of him, rises a little from the chair he’s been fidgeting in, trying to get comfortable, and shows me a laminated icon of the Virgin Mary he takes out of his pocket. “I’ll take this. The lawyer who made the arrangements for me gave it to me. I had it with me today at my interview and my visa for America was approved,” he replies. I ask him if he believes in God. “I believe he exists. I don’t know exactly how, but he exists,” he says.
The 18-year-old sitting will be flying to the United States next Friday. His final destination is Kansas, specifically Bethany College, where he will start a bachelor’s degree on a scholarship thanks to his performance in basketball. “I’m committed to studying as much as I can. And I will practice. I’m fast, but I need to improve my technique. I can become much better,” he says with conviction, and youthful impatience. When he returns in four years, he hopes that everything will have gone according to “the plan,” which means a spot on the Panathinaikos basketball team, whose youth academy helped him discover and develop his talent.
Benoit’s story is similar to many other unaccompanied refugee children who arrived in Greece at the height of the migrant crisis and were granted asylum and social assistance: He left Cameroon alone, during clashes in 2016 that led to the still-ongoing civil. A few months later, when he was not even 12 years old, he arrived on Leros on an inflatable boat. The details are shocking.
“I was orphaned and alone. I was at school when they told me my house had been set on fire. I returned home to find everything burnt and my parents dead. I couldn’t actually identify them, but I assumed that two scorched bodies in the ruins must have been my parents. That’s what civil war is like. My aunt, my mother’s sister, hid me for two days and then – I don’t know how she did it or how much she paid – she handed me over to someone to take me to Turkey. That’s how I got to Istanbul.”
‘I have a goal. And when I come back I’ll be ready to play for Panathinaikos’
He believes he spent about six months in Turkey, living in a house with around 40 other people of all ages, waiting for his turn to cross to Greece. Many would set off only to be turned back after being caught by the authorities. In the meantime, he secured meals by washing dishes. “Fortunately, in Turkey you can work even if you are a minor,” he says.
He stayed on Leros for a month before being relocated to Athens, where he was housed in a shelter for unaccompanied minors run by The HOME Project. It was tough at first: He didn’t speak the language, he didn’t know where he was and he always felt angry. Today he knows that what came next seems like something from a fairy tale.
The HOME Project is a nonprofit organization that provides support, education and social integration to unaccompanied minors. It has so far helped more than 900 children and provided 170 jobs. It works with the American Community Schools (ACS) of Athens to give the children in its care an education, including Benoit, who was granted a scholarship thanks to his basketball abilities. “I played soccer, but I can’t say I was very good,” he laughs. He was selected to attend the Panathinaikos Basketball Academy in the spring before his schooling had even begun. “Everyone told me I should try my luck in basketball,” he says.
Benoit applied to several universities in the US, requesting to be considered for their scholarship programs based on his athletic performance. He was accepted by three and picked Bethany.
“Why not France?” I ask. After all, French is his native language. “Yes, but I’ve managed to hide my accent in English, haven’t I?” If his parents were alive they would be so proud. “I want to go to France, to Paris. For every child in Cameroon, Paris is heaven. I want to see the Eiffel Tower, to take a selfie in front of it, to show that I’m there. But for basketball, the country is America,” he concludes.
“Are you scared?” I ask. “I’m excited,” he replies. “I’m going to do as much as I can. The university is far from the city center, so I’ll be isolated and it will be easier to concentrate. No parties or drinking. Just training and studying,” he tells me, looking committed. “I have a goal. And when I come back I’ll be ready to play for Panathinaikos.”
He knows nothing about the rest of his family back in Cameroon. “I don’t even know if there is anyone,” he explains. “But, I’m not alone. I have many friends here in Greece. Greeks, Africans, Afghans, people from many countries. I wouldn’t have accomplished anything without their help. You can do nothing on your own.”