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Lucky escape

Liverpool-based Kenyan ref Viera tells his harrowing story

The plan appeared to work and my deception paid off. We traveled for the tournament and reached the semi-finals, where we lost against a Ugandan team.

In Summary

• But on June 10, 2014, I returned home from training and reached out to grasp my metal door handle when there was a loud bang.

• I spent a month in hospital. Most of my face had been badly burnt and other patients at the hospital were frightened to look at me. My looks scared them.

Liverpool-based kenyan referee Jacob Viera with Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti
Liverpool-based kenyan referee Jacob Viera with Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti
Image: /COURTESY

My name is Jacob Viera. I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. This is my story.

It all started happily, when I was lucky to be one of the players selected to compete in an Under 16 tournament in Arusha, Tanzania against teams from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Zanzibar and Mozambique.

Before departure, those selected spent two weeks in a hotel and it was here that I was approached by a group of five men. They knew the team bus would soon be making its way to Tanzania and they chose me to be their drug mule.

I was so scared. I was a young man but all too aware of the reality and seriousness of this proposition: agree to transport the drugs and be held responsible if caught, or refuse to co-operate and be dealt with there and then – to prevent you disclosing information to anyone else.

I thought the best thing for me to do was tell them the bus was departing a few days later than scheduled. This would ensure that, when they arrive with the package, I would’ve already left. Afterwards, I told one of my friends and my manager about this terrifying dilemma.

The plan appeared to work and my deception paid off. We traveled for the tournament and reached the semi-finals, where we lost against a Ugandan team.

A month later, now back from Tanzania, it was in the papers that drug barons had been caught by police at the same hotel we had stayed, in possession of drugs, a few days after we had left for Tanzania. My family asked me to take extra precautions because it’s well known that if a gang suspects you of setting them up, they’ll take their revenge and assault or even kill you. For my own safety, I was sent to a boys’ boarding school in Western Province, far away from Nairobi.

I loved the school. I played football for the school team and it was safe there. The deputy principal, Dismas Owuor, was one of the best English teachers in the country. He also doubled up as the school team football manager with the help of Mr Sammy. I can tell you I was really good, on and off the pitch — very disciplined and dedicated.

After high school education, I continued playing football with Muhoroni Youth FC for six months, before I moved back to Nairobi.

I was played for both Tena United and Ligi Ndogo FC, which meant my name was now appearing in newspapers. With Tena United, I was privileged to be the captain, where I led a young team of very talented players side to promotion, but some unexplained events started happening to me and I became suspicious about who was behind them. I avoided letting people know where I lived.

But on June 10, 2014, I returned home from training and reached out to grasp my metal door handle when there was a loud bang.

I was thrown to the floor where I lay unconscious until my neighbour, Jimoh, saw my door slightly open while I lay on the floor. He came to my aid and noticed that live wires had been attached to my door handle, connected to an electrical socket. I had been electrocuted.

I was quickly rushed to hospital with the skin on my face, neck and left arm scorched off. My injuries were so severe that the doctor thought that I needed a miracle more than treatment to survive.

My family were unaware of what was going on but here I was, fighting for my life, alone.

I spent a month in hospital. Most of my face had been badly burnt and other patients at the hospital were frightened to look at me. My looks scared them.

When I was discharged, I had only three weeks to recover since I was due to fly to England for trials at Newcastle. When I got there, an academy staff member was interested in knowing what had happened to me since I was in pain and the injuries were still visible. I explained to him.

Honestly speaking, I was terrified of going back to face those people again. I’m still terrified to-date.

News about my story was being broadcast and published in Kenyan newspapers, even before I came to England, and many people knew what happened.

The academy manager suggested the best thing for me to do was to claim asylum and when asked to provide evidence, I was advised to basically print the information which was online and submit it to the Home Office.

Having listened carefully to the advice, I knew it was the best thing I could do to save my situation. Anyone in my position would have done the same for safety reasons.  It was two weeks before my first screening interview in London and in between, I continued to normally engage in football activities.

I had permission to play in exhibition matches but since I was in the asylum system, I was not allowed to sign any professional contract until I was granted permission to stay in the country.

When it was time to go to London for my screening interview, I did not have accommodation. I was transported to a hotel — where hundreds of asylum-seekers were housed.

During the few weeks I was there, I used to wake up at 5am and run a few miles near the hotel, just to keep myself fit. I really wanted to play some football. One morning while on my normal morning run, I came across the Crystal Palace ground and a local park. I was interested to see if there were any clubs having their training sessions so that I could ask if I could join.

Sadly, there was no one there so the next day I missed my food and waited at the ground for teams to arrive for training. In the evening a team arrived and after watching them train, I asked their manager if I could come and join them for next day’s training. He asked me questions which I was happy to answer and although he told me that he couldn’t assure me of a place to train, he asked me to come back the next day at the same time.

I really enjoyed it and I was overwhelmed. The manager was interested in me joining them and when I explained my situation, he understood and asked me to return the following week. As I was just getting changed to go back to the hotel, a spectator from the stands approached me — he was a scout for Tottenham Hotspur. He was also interested and could take me there for trials.

He said that if they accepted me, then they would sort out my case which was marvelous. He gave me his card and we agreed that he was coming to collect me from the hotel the following Monday afternoon. But on the day, my name was displayed on the list for a second interview at the Home Office. I had to collect all my stuff, get into the van and go for the interview.

I wasn’t worried, I hoped to go for the screening interview, come back to the hotel and then go with the scout to Spurs. I didn’t call the scout to inform him, because I assumed that things would be alright.

But after the interview, I was put on a fast-track process and detained at Harmondsworth detention centre to await a quick decision. This was unbelievable, the officer took everything away from me including my phone and I was locked in a small room with five others, until we were driven to Harmondsworth that evening.  It was near Heathrow Airport, we were locked up between 8pm and 10am and I feared for the worst, being on the next flight back to Kenya.

We couldn’t see outside. We could only see the sky and sometimes the planes to and from the nearby airport. But this become a nightmare. I used to see Kenya Airways flights every half an hour or so and this reminded me of my worst fear, returning to Nairobi.

When it was time for me to do my full asylum interview, an officer came and escorted me to a room. The immigration officer was there waiting, ready to interview me while a Home Office legal aid solicitor was there too to represent me.

I was released a day after the interview and taken to Liverpool to await a decision. First, a doctor had to examine my scarring to see if my injuries were consistent with my story.

It was time to start a new life again in Liverpool but when I got there, although I thought my English was fairly good, I struggled to understand the Scousers, with their strong accent and lots of slang.

However, I was warmly welcomed by the lovely members of St Anne’s Catholic Church, where I became an alter boy. The first people I met were the priest, Father Peter Morgan, Margaret Kane, Neil and Lawl.

It’s because of this church that I felt so welcome in Liverpool and after a short while, I could better understand Scouse. Liverpool became my home away from home. I started playing for local clubs like Edge Hill FC, Mosley Hill Athletic, Mandela FC and Dengo United.

Before long, I was invited to train with the Everton FC academy U18 squad, under Paul Tait. I thought that I was dreaming. Players whom I used to watch on television while in Kenya were there, on the next pitch at Finch Farm.

The facilities were brilliant. I’d never trained on such grounds before. Everything was amazing and the staff so friendly. Indeed: “Nil Satis, Nisi optimum.”

And that was the place to be if you needed to be the best. Yet frustratingly, until my immigration status was sorted out, I wouldn’t be signing any contracts. The first team manager, Roberto Martinez, became and will always be my favourite Premier League manager. He was a very good man, not just as a manager but as a person.

When he was sacked, it was really heart-breaking for me. I loved this man and the fact that he believed in young players from the academy and gave them chances. He encouraged each and every one of us to work extra hard.

The other man I met there was Stuart Carrington — a good man with a heart full of kindness, love and support.  Anytime I needed or still need advice, he’s the go-to man. Before I make any decision, he has to know. It’s because of Stu that I’ve learnt a lot, gone to places and he has created for me a brighter future.

And Everton in the Community really played a big part in my life. I remember after I had anterior cruciate ligament surgery following an injury I picked up playing for a local club, I couldn’t play football for a year and they sponsored my football courses at Goodison Park and Everton Free School.

Among the courses I completed were FA Coaching Level 1, Football and First Aid coaching, Mental Health Awareness, FA Emergency Aid, Prince’s Trust ‘Get Started With Football’, Barclays Premier League Works, Coaching Programme with Everton, First Aid Emergency Response and more.

Being part of the Community, I’ve involved myself in different projects where I volunteer for coaching sessions and meet new people and make friends, such as sessions with asylum-seekers and refugees living in Liverpool, every Tuesday and Thursday. It’s through this that I won the 2017 Young Volunteer of the Year Award, presented by the Liverpool County FA.

As I continued with my knee rehabilitation, Stuart introduced me to the Liverpool County FA to start my refereeing and it’s here that I came to meet very kind, generous and lovely people who have taken me in as their own son.

With my refereeing journey has been fantastic. I started as a Level Eight and Nine referee when I had the injury to keep myself going on with my football dream. One year later, I loved refereeing more than playing. The County FA gave me an opportunity and always offered to help with anything.

These people have made me push myself to the limit in terms of my refereeing career. I had to commit myself, work hard and show determination. I’ve loved every single game I’ve refereed to get promoted. Whether it was girls, boys or seniors’ games, I’ve had the passion and the teams can testify that I’ve always given my best.

I was selected to be on the FA CORE programme in which as a young referee, you are given a coach/ mentor to guide you on how to become a better referee. When I started, I never had any self confidence, I was very weak mentally and I wasn’t one of the best. It is through the CORE that the coaches have helped me build on my communication skills and improve on my knowledge.

I’ve since won the Liverpool Grassroots match official of the year award, in 2017-18, one of my career highlights and it’s because of the Liverpool County FA that I’ve met Premier League referees like Anthony Taylor through the FA CORE regional assessments.

This season, I was buzzing when I received an email from the FA congratulating me on my promotion to Level Four. This is what any referee would want to hear. The FA has given me an opportunity that I’ve grabbed with both hands and it’s up to me to use it in achieving my dreams.

I know I’ve got a long way to go with my refereeing career but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and happy for the safety I’ve had while I’ve been in England.

Being in danger in my country was the worst thing for me, especially as a footballer. But life has to go on. I love my country apart from a few individuals who wish to destroy me for something I did not do. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and where I am today.

When I look back, I am always thankful and grateful to the people who have been behind my success. Above all, glory be to God Almighty. I have faced many challenges — especially with my asylum case and gaining permission to stay in the UK. There are times when my NASS support was stopped, times when my quest for asylum was turned down a number of times. Sometimes I had no food, no money and it seemed to be the end of the world for me.

I have come to learn that, in life, if at first you don’t succeed in whatever you want to achieve, keep trying. If you believe, every challenge can be a stepping stone to something better. Life has knocked me down a few times. It showed me things I never wanted to see. I’ve experienced sadness and failures but one thing is for sure, I always get up.

Now, I’m living with my wife, whom I first met back in 2015, and we have a one-year old daughter.