Interview

Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone hits home for Michael Lahoud

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union midfielder Michael Lahoud left Sierra Leone when he was six years old. Since that time, he has developed into a top ten pick in the MLS SuperDraft and has been called up to the Sierra Leone national team, which plays Seychelles in an African Cup of Nations qualifier on August 2.

Lahoud’s on-field progress means he gets to fulfill his dream of playing international soccer. It also gives him a platform to draw attention to issues in Sierra Leone.

And while Lahoud continues to work with and raise money for organizations that promote education and build schools in the country of his birth, right now he is working to help Sierra Leone deal with the worst outbreak of ebola virus in history.

Sierra Leone is at the center of the worst ebola outbreak in history

“Ebola is just about the most deadly virus we have, so far,” Lahoud told Philly Soccer Page. “And people there don’t know much about it. There is at least one tribe that, after someone dies, they keep the body in the house. So if that person was infected, now you’ve got a whole family with it.

“[Former Sporting Kansas City and current Middlesbrough player] Kei Kamara, who is also on the [Sierra Leone] national team, first alerted me to what is going on there. He’s from a town just a few miles from where the outbreak started. He’s a country boy — it’s funny, one guy from a third world country calling another a country boy, but compared to Freetown, where I’m from, he’s a country boy — and he told me what was going on and how bad it was getting.”

The virus can kill in under two weeks, and the species of ebola currently threatening Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia is the Zaire ebolavirus, which traditionally has a 79% death rate according to the Center for Disease Control.

Lahoud is working with a number of charities, including Schools for Salone, to help prevent the disease from spreading and, importantly, educate people about what can put them in danger. Lahoud was already involved with Schools for Salone, and is trying to raise $50,000 for an ongoing schools project with the organization.

“Schools for Salone is sending people to help,” Lahoud said. “I’m working to send teams in. And these are people who get right into the heart of it and put their lives on the line to help.

“Education is one problem dealing with ebola,” he continued. “It’s different in Africa in terms of personal space. It’s a culture where people live close to each other, it’s a culture of hugging… and that’s how the disease spreads, through bodily fluids. So a country near the equator, where you are sweating all the time, people need information on how the virus spreads.”

A 23-year old Michael Lahoud had to answer a big question

Lahoud’s commitment to charity work is well known, and he says a lot of what drives him to give back to both the Philadelphia community and those he has been a part of during his previous stops in life goes back to one question: Do you want to change the world?

“What happened was, I was in LA, playing for Chivas at the time,” Lahoud said in a voice that sounded far away, like he could still feel himself in the precise moment. “And Cindy Nofziger [founder of Schools for Salone] came and found me as we were getting off the bus and she said, ‘Hey, can I talk to you a minute?’ So we sat down, and I remember she just asked me, ‘Do you want to change the world?’

“And, I mean, I was 23 years old at the time. When you’re 23, it’s hard to think of anything but yourself. But that question, ‘Do you want to change the world?’ hit me. And she wasn’t pushy, she said, ‘Go home and think about it.’ And I did, and I realized, ‘Yeah, I do want to change the world.’ And we met again and she just told me some of the things I could do.”

It was the right question at the right moment in life. But since then, a lifelong dream-come-true has reminded Lahoud what a special chance he has to continue changing the world. That dream? Playing international soccer.

International soccer as a platform and motivator

Lahoud was called up to play in the African Cup of Nations qualifiers against Swaziland. During the second leg, a home game for Sierra Leone, Lahoud drew the penalty that earned his country a 1-0 victory over Swaziland. He’ll never forget what happened after the match.

“It’s hard to take it all in,” he said, sounding as if the event still felt a bit like a dream. “Afterwards, everyone is so happy and on the field cheering. And it’s hard to realize how much it means. But I remember this one guy, he just kept yelling, ‘You’ve saved us! You’ve saved us!’ And… and he asked me to hold his son. His infant son. Just to hold him for a minute. And I’m sweaty, it’s rainy, and I’m holding someone else’s infant. It just made me realize how much soccer means to people.

“In Philadelphia, after the game you can go back to being just Michael Lahoud, the guy. But for two days after that game, I couldn’t go outside. That’s what every kid dreams about there, playing for the national team. And when I was there, we would go out and find a guy who hadn’t eaten and invite him to come have lunch with us in the hotel, or just kicking a ball with some kids, those things that don’t get reported or written about. We would buy a meal for a group of kids. Those things make you realize what you mean to people.”

Speaking up while he has the chance

Lahoud will always treasure those memories, but not because of the personal glory attached to them. Looking back on that stadium full of people who spent money they could not spare to see players they revere playing the sport they passionately love, Lahoud will always be reminded of how important it is to use your voice when it is loudest. As a professional athlete, his voice carries more than most.

And right now, he is speaking about the ebola outbreak in West Africa. This is the first time ebola has hit that part of the continent, and the first time it has shown up in large cities. It has been a month since Doctors Without Borders said the outbreak was overwhelming health care facilities, and educating the population about how to avoid contracting and spreading the disease is proving to be one of the most difficult aspects of controlling the virus’ spread.

“I still have some family in Sierra Leone,” Lahoud said. “In Freetown, which is the capital. They aren’t close to where it’s worse, but the feeling everywhere is that with ebola it’s just a matter of time.”

How to help

Click on an organization’s name below to donate to Schools for Salone or Walk To Africa, another organization Lahoud has worked with that supports Lighthouse Medical Missions. As Lahoud said, even the money you would have spent on one coffee can go a long way toward helping a region dealing with the worst outbreak of ebola in history.

Additionally, follow Lahoud on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on his new charity, Building Dreams With Mike.

3 Comments

  1. The Chopper says:

    Nice read. Thank you. And thank you Michael LaHoud for reminding us that there are far more important things than MLS futbol in the world.

  2. the dude is a class act

  3. Old soccer coach says:

    79%. Articles on Wikipedia indicate a fatality range between 50% and 90%. As with all statistics, the methodology used to create and classify the raw data is determinant of the final results. The textbook descriptions of the impact of European diseases on native populations in North and South America after Columbus range between 50% and 90%. The reason Cortez escaped Tenochtitlan in early 1520was that too many Aztecs were incapacitated by smallpox to be able to keep him trapped. I used to have my students stand, number off one through ten, and then have all numbers from one through nine sit on the floor.

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