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FLAMES EXTRA - THE PRICE OF FREEDOM

Oliver Kylington shares the harrowing tale of how his mother, Teber, fled her home in war-torn Eritrea, and how her story has turned him into the man he is today

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Situated in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan, Ethiop, Djibouti and along on its eastern coastline by the Red Sea, Eritrea is a multi-ethnic country of 10 national languages spoken among its six million inhabitants.

It is a land of diversity, lush topography, abundant wildlife.

Also, sadly, of historical conflict and suppression. The red in its flag represents the blood shed in the fight for freedom and independence.

A fierce border war that would go on to claim tens of thousands of lives was at its height when, well over two decades ago, Teber Zeru made the decision to flee the land of her birth and the military presence of invading Ethiopian forces.

On the way to a waiting car that would be the first step in smuggling her, a sister and friend to Stockholm, Sweden, and sanctuary with a brother who lived and studied there, between the house and the car door, a bullet bit deeply into her arm.

Teber was all of 19 years old.

"When you're a little kid," confesses Oliver Kylington, peeling off gear following Thursday's morning skate at the Scotiabank Saddledome, "and your mom tells you that, maybe you think: 'My mom got shot? That's cool.'

"Like in a comic book or something on TV, right?

"But then, pretty quickly, you start getting more perspective and begin to realize how scary it must have been. I mean, to actually be … shot. Living in a country where people are fleeing because of what's happening there. You hear about it but you can't imagine it.

"Not really.

"I can't remember exactly when the question popped up - I'd have been seven or eight, I'd guess - but she's always wanted me to be aware of her story.

"You can't hear it and not be affected by it."

So the silky-skilled defenceman truly does understand the abundance of his blessings: A sizeable, close-knit family back home. An upwardly trending career in the National Hockey League for an organization which values his abilities. Good salary. First-class travel. All the perks of being a professional athlete.

"You look at the way we all live," he says, scanning the room, "and … no complaints. None at all."

Not after hearing the stories.

The gunshot that ripped into her arm cost his mom a lot of blood. Following a hospital stay to recuperate, the trek to a better life segued through Saudi Arabia and Italy en route to Sweden, where she would meet Borje Kylington, retrieve her life, her independence, and begin to raise a family.

"She didn't know anything at all about hockey, but being in Sweden, she had to learn pretty quick," says Kylington, a slight smile of amusement.

When Kylington was drafted 60th overall in 2015, both his parents were in the stands in Sunrise, Fla., to join in the celebration.

Video: CAR@CGY: Kylington stakes Flames to early lead

His mom won't talk publicly about that deadly time in her homeland, which today remains an unopposed one-party state. But she and her hockey-playing son have made the journey back to Eritrea twice, and she just recently returned from a three-week on-her-own visit following the Christmas holidays.

"Last time I was back there I was pretty young," Kylington acknowledges. "But I hear from family that things are still not great.

"Just knowing they still only have electricity a couple of hours a day is a real eye-opener. What we're used to - phones, up-to-date news, FaceTime, all those things … they don't have any of that.

"It's a whole different world for us here.

"My mom went for three weeks and I couldn't talk to her. Not once. If you're there, you're there. Cut off. It's different."

What helped ease the transition to life in Europe for the teenaged Teru in those troubled times was the arrival, bit by bit, of her entire family.

Flight to freedom, then, becoming a shared experience.

"Everyone came over to Sweden,'' says Kylington. "All her sisters and brothers - my mom has a total of seven siblings, so it's a big family. I have a lot of cousins on my mom's side. I'm very close to them. We're really tight.

"We're real blood.

"It's a lot of fun to go back home in the summers, see my uncles and cousins, hang out with everyone and have fun.

"I'm lucky. My dad has always been there for me with my hockey. My mom supports me sort of in general, the way moms do.

"Obviously, I respect my parents. I'm older now and I make my own decisions in life but I always know that if I need something, or I need advice, I can talk to them."

Video: CGY@EDM: Kylington buries one-timer past Koskinen

After two prep seasons in Stockton, Calif., at the minor-league level, he's still finding a niche along the Flames' blueline. Meaning the Kylington story as an NHL defenceman is still very much in the early pages of its first chapter.

But the story of the 19-year-old woman who all those years ago left a homeland in search of a better, freer existence, he knows, trumps that, and will, whatever may happen for him from here on in.

"My mom, her story, has taught me so many things,"says Kylington. "About never giving up, always believing in yourself, wanting a better life.

"You think about what she went through. Being in a war zone. Hearing things. Wondering. Constantly worrying. Seeing stuff happen …"

A soft shake of the head.

"She left her home. She left everything she knew. That takes courage.

"I know it's impacted me, how I live my life.

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