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'They are my family': San Antonio man navigates soccer team out of Ukraine

Eleojo Okeme owns FC Dynamic, based in eastern Ukraine. After fleeing to Slovakia, he's been helping all 68 players and 8 coaches flee the Russian invasion.

SAN ANTONIO — A San Antonio man is on a mission to help his soccer team escape the Russian invasion.

February 2, Eleojo Okeme left the Alamo City to take his yearly trip to Ukraine. His team, FC Dynamic, is based near the eastern border.

Weeks after his arrival, all 64 members of the club became refugees. They uprooted their lives in Ukraine to head west.

"I need someone to wake me up. Just wake me up and tell me it's a dream, it's not happening," said Okeme in a Zoom interview with KENS 5 Friday afternoon. "We didn't know Putin was going to be that crazy to do what he did."

Last Wednesday, Okeme was urged by his wife in San Antonio to leave Ukraine. So he took his 8-year-old son Oliver and fled to Slovakia.

Credit: Tauna Okeme
Eleojo Okeme and 8-year-old son, Oliver

The next day, the invasion began and all airports were shut down.

"It was early in the morning, [my players] were still sleeping and they started hearing like bombs," said Okeme.

FC Dynamic is based in Kharkiv, a city near Ukraine's eastern border with Russia.

He finances the club using his own money and funds from his previous professional soccer contracts. In case Okeme's name sounds familiar, he's also played with the San Antonio Runners.

"I started it to give minorities over there in Ukraine the opportunity to be able to make it over there," he explained.

Okeme was born in the slums of Nigeria. He says in 2007, when he was 16, he was scouted by an agent who took him to Ukraine to play soccer and study. He eventually earned a PhD.

That's what inspired him to start his own soccer club. FC Dynamic launched in March 2010. Just like Okeme, as his players compete, they're also going to school.

Credit: Eleojo Okeme
Members of FC Dynamic Kharkiv

"You can play to a certain age before you can retire. So I want them to have a Plan B, something to fall back to," said Okeme. "A career outside a career."

After the bombs started in Ukraine, Okeme began navigating his 64 players and 8 coaches out of the country.

He used his remaining team budget to help them leave.

"Some of [the players] are in Hungary, some of them are in Slovakia, some of them are in Poland," said Okeme.

As of Friday afternoon, the remaining 28 players were still trying to escape. 12 were on a train, the rest had just arrived at the western border and were in line to cross.

"The way they board the train right now it's not the normal way," said Okeme. "Everybody has their ticket, has their seat. People are sitting on the floor, people sit on each other, people stand on the train for 24 hours to get to their destination."

When some of his players arrived at the border, he says, they were forced to wait in line up to two days.

Credit: Eleojo Okeme
FC Dynamic Kharkiv players and coaches

"I'm not the type to play the race card. I don't like to talk about that. I don't like to go there, but so many of my boys when they got to the border...Mainly the Polish border and the Hungary border, some of them were in the line and when it got to their turn, they told them to step aside just for the Ukrainians to cross over. So they had to step aside for 5, 6, 7 extra hours," Okeme explained, saying his players video called him to show him the situation at the border. 

"They weren't making trouble. They said, 'Please let us go. We need to go'. There was even a point when [police] were pointing a gun at them. 'Stay there! Don't move an inch! If you move, I'm going to shoot you!'" he continued. "This doesn't happen only to black people, it happened also to Indian students, Arab students."

Okeme spent Friday talking with universities in Slovakia. His goal is to relocate his team and organization there. He said he hopes for a meeting with universities next week to begin the process.

"Once I get those ones to cross over, that's when I'll be able to rest. It's been horrible because they are my family," he said.

A GoFundMe page was created for FC Dynamic. The money raised will help replenish the budget he used to help the team escape. The funds will also benefit their schooling.

He's also on a mission to find the team a sponsor. Since the club's inception, Okeme has been doing fundraising with African communities in Ukraine.

"My team is actually the only team that doesn't have a sponsor...just because the team belongs to a foreigner or an immigrant, an African," he explained.

Once everyone is relocated, Okeme says he will return home to San Antonio.

So far, he says his home in Kharkiv is still standing. He hopes to return one day when it is safe to do so.

"The U.S. is my first home. The Ukraine is my second home and Nigeria is my third home. It's like I just lost my second home."

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