Salvator Cusimano is a political affairs officer with the United Nations. This article is written in a personal capacity.
A mosquito buzzed past my ear as I emerged from a bizarre dream.
It was 2:28 a.m., and I was instantly alert. Working through the time difference, I knew that it should be just about over now.
I punched "Raptors Sixers score” into my phone browser’s search bar. The 2G icon flashed for an eternity. Tentatively, painstakingly, the results loaded:
Toronto 90, Philadelphia, 90.
Four seconds to go.
And five hours to go until I’d leave Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital, to start working with rebel-group representatives and community members in the countryside.
Yet somehow, I found myself closer to the anxiety and anticipation I’d often experienced in an upper-bowl seat at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
I’ve been away from home for some time now.
In May 2015, Europe’s refugee crisis was in full swing. I wanted to see if there was some way I could contribute to addressing what was unfolding across the Atlantic. So after managing to land a job with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I moved to Malta.
I learned soon after arriving that my upstairs neighbour had been born and raised in Toronto’s Rexdale district. More importantly, he had come to his ancestral country to open a bar with the goal of bringing an appreciation of North American sports to the southern Mediterranean.
During the day, then, I counselled refugees, examined conditions in reception centres and discussed proposals to strengthen refugee protection with government officials. At night, I found my own refuge in that hole-in-the-wall around the corner from my apartment.
Over burgers and local beers, I met fellow Canadians, each with a different story of what brought them to Malta but with a shared passion for our teams.
The bat flip against Texas. Successive Game 7s versus Indiana and Miami, and then the roller coaster of six games against LeBron’s Cavaliers. Texting with my friends back in Canada on Facebook and WhatsApp and with a few compatriots by my side, it was easy to forget that it was 4 a.m. and that I had a meeting with government officials in a few hours.
Whenever the games were on, I was transported into a state of focus that my friends, family and partner know I am seldom able to achieve in professional or personal matters.
But as I trudged home and climbed into bed, I was usually left with the image of my friends sticking around the bar for a nightcap to dissect Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s performance, or whether David Price had been worth – well – the price.
I loved my job, but through sports, I started to appreciate that I wasn’t yet where I belonged.
My next job with the United Nations, in New York, had obvious upsides. I would mobilize up to 20 Canadians – not to mention Brits, Japanese, Russians and Italians who often joined – to watch Mitch Marner set up Auston Matthews (in any of three arenas); have Yankees fans hurl clever obscenities our way (unforgettable: “Ripley’s Aquarium sucks!”) or marvel at Sebastian Giovinco as he dashed the Red Bulls’ championship dreams with yet another clinical set piece.
Being able to actually attend those games didn’t just mean that I could be fully awake at work the next day. It also allowed me to carve out a physical space in which I could feel fully at home.
But most of all, less than two hours by air away from Toronto, I would still get that feeling when the excitement was over that I would someday need to find my way home.
Just as sports has helped to give me a sense of place, my profession has opened my mind and my heart to the vast world that we live in and the interconnectedness of humanity.
So in March, I moved to the Central African Republic for another UN posting.
Here, I’m further away from home than ever.
But as I refreshed the box score in the dead of night, waiting impatiently until the score read 92-90, seeing Kawhi’s points total go from 39 to 41, and realizing what had happened even before the wild messages started pouring in from my friends, I felt as close to home and the people that define it as I had since leaving.
I slept soundly, knowing that the difficulty I would soon experience hauling a newly purchased satellite TV dish on a UN flight across the country would not be in vain.
At least not for another series, another chance to transport myself back to the place I call home.