It's hard to imagine anywhere more different from the neatly manicured parks and safe, clean roads of Mission Viejo than a war-torn farming village in northeast Africa.
That must have been in the mind of Latjor Dar last week. The paraplegic tennis player from Sudan visited Mission Viejo for the sixth-annual Cruyff Foundation Junior Wheelchair Camp at the city's Felipe Tennis Center.
Meet Latjor Dar
How did a 17-year-old who grew up raising cattle in Africa end up at a Mission Viejo tennis camp?
Now hailing from Salt Lake City, Dar only had one year of tennis under his belt before coming to the camp in 2009. Since then he has come to Mission Viejo every summer.
“I love the people,” Dar said. “Everybody down here is all friends. I love the coaches. They take care of everybody.”
A life of early difficulty forced Dar to grow up quickly. Born in Sudan, Dar lost his father to war at a young age.
Growing up with three siblings and a single mother on a farm, Dar was fortunate to have food to eat every day, he says, but the family did not make enough money to provide education and health care for the kids.
It wasn’t until nine years ago when a simple accident turned Dar’s life around. While he was taking the cows out of the barn, one of the cows was pestered by an insect and started throwing a fit. The cow caught Dar offguard as it stomped on his left foot on accident, giving him a bruise. Dar shrugged it off, assuming he would heal in time.
But instead his injury got worse.
Though he was able to walk for two days after the incident, a week later, the bruise swelled up and caused Dar to walk with a limp. Two weeks later, his other leg stopped working, as he found himself falling on the ground whenever he tried to walk.
His family took him to the doctor, but they could not help with his problem. Paraparesis, an infection that paralyzes the lower half of the body, had taken over.
His paralysis was more than a major inconvenience for Dar. It was a life-changing burden.
He couldn't afford a Sudanese education, which kept him shut out of a professional career. And now he could not work in manual labor.
His family could only afford a cheap wheelchair that was too big for his size and lacked a cushion. From a child who once enjoyed playing soccer with his friends and working on the farm, Dar’s situation was close to hopeless.
However, thanks to his mother, the family decided to move to America to provide a better life for Dar and his siblings a year after the incident.
The move wasn’t difficult due to their refugee status and the fact that Dar’s aunt lived in Utah. On September 27, 2005, Dar and his family filled out the paperwork and arrived in Utah, living in a small house the U.S. Government rented out for them. He finally visited an American doctor who was not able to provide him a cure, but did provide a free wheelchair Dar's size equipped with working brakes and soft cushions.
Living in an environment that offers a better life for wheelchair-bound people, Dar made peace with his situation.
"I think God chose me to be that way," Dar said. "When I was in Africa I couldn't handle it. Why did it happen to me? But when I came to America, I came to understand that this is my next life and I got to deal with it. I can't do anything else."
To this day Dar is grateful for his new life in America. He has not taken anything he was offered for granted.
"In America I can get my wheelchair for free," said Dar. "The other reason I like it is because of my healthcare. Third is my school. I can go to school and do what I like to do. That is a big opportunity. Over in Africa, you can't just go to college and be what you want to be. In America you can be what you want to be if you go to school."
Now Dar is preparing for his senior year at West High School in Salt Lake City and plans to study at Salt Lake Community College.
Ever since he came to America, Dar has immersed himself in hip hop, influenced by artists like the former Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. His passion for rap music has led him to pursue a career as a recording artist.
In his free time, He enjoys writing lyrics and looking up beats on the internet. But if music never works out, he also wants to become a lawyer and return to Africa to promote equal rights for those with disabilities. Whichever career he chases after, Dar believes that his current circumstances can allow him to become anything he wants.
"The chair is not going to stop me," said Dar. "I gotta accept this chair and I gotta do what I gotta do, but this chair won't stop me."
In his first year, Dar faced great challenges playing against the experienced players. But through the camp his skills have improved, especially his serves.
Now in his fourth year at the camp, he has been able to keep up with the best players on the court.
"In this camp there's a lot of good players," Dar said. "I'm not one of the best, but I'm there and I'm challenging the good players. I lost my match to this really good guy, but I did my best against this guy and felt really good. I won two of my matches, but lost one. But I'm happy about it, I'm not mad about losing."
Aside from tennis, Dar enjoys playing wheelchair basketball. He lives in Utah, but he's is a fan of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite his passion for basketball, he knows tennis will be the one sport he’ll play for the rest of his life—it's a sport he can play alongside those without disabilities.
"I want to play tennis for fun," he said. "Tennis for me is something for life. It's a sport that I can do for fun. It's something I can do with my friends whenever we want to go hit some balls."
Off the court, Dar has developed from a shy kid into a mentor for the younger players, giving advice on tennis and how to handle situations like transferring chairs and changing clothes more conveniently.
Also, his background has made a positive impact on other attendees who realized there are other kids who go through what they went through, possibly in a more difficult way.
Junior Wheelchair Camp
Jason Harnett, the head tennis professional of Mission Viejo and the United States Tennis Association’s national performance coach for wheelchair tennis, has headed the event since it began six years ago.
Harnett has helped create an environment where young athletes not only learn how to play tennis, but also network with kids from all over the United States, South America and Canada.
"There aren't opportunities like this as much as there should be for disabled kids, but the international scene is the unique part of the camp," Harnett said. "The kids get to meet kids from another country like El Salvador who share the same age with the same disability. They have a common experience that it doesn't make a difference whether you're from the same country or not."