Former Sudanese refugee Awer Mabil recently debuted for Australia
He often returns to the refugee camp to provide football equipment
“Football has given me life,” Mabil told FIFA.com
Thirteen years ago Awer Mabil was living a day-by-day existence. Like most refugees, he faced a scarily uncertain future.
The nine-year old had spent his entire life in the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, with his family having fled strife-torn Sudan before he was born.
Luckily, Awer had a distraction from the hardship. Impromptu barefoot matches on the rough and unforgiving red-earth were a daily occurrence. Little else mattered.
A world away - both physically and figuratively - and on a very different playing surface, another football contest was taking place.
In Sydney, Australia experienced its ultimate football milestone moment by qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™, ending a tortuous 32-year absence from the game’s greatest stage. John Aloisi’s winning penalty changed football Down Under with a single kick, with the achievement becoming a touchstone for Australian sport.
Young Awer knew nothing of this. News from the outside world was rare, and there were more pressing matters to be considered amidst a hand-to-mouth existence.
Yet this wide-eyed little boy from east Africa would, almost unimaginably, eventually become part of the Socceroos’ story. A couple of months after Australia qualified for Germany 2006, Mabil’s family moved Down Under.
Fast forward to the present day and he is an Australia international. Not only did he debut for the national team last month, but he scored within minutes of entering the field as a second-half substitute.
Also making his debut that day in Kuwait City was Thomas Deng, another Sudanese refugee. Incredibly, the pair went to the same school in Adelaide and played for the same junior club. Almost inevitably, Deng played a crucial role in setting up Mabil’s goal.
“It is such an honour to represent Australia, because Australia has given me and my family a second chance in life,” Mabil told FIFA.com. “That is something for which I’m very grateful.
“The only way I know how to pay that back is the only way I know - through football. I’m prepared to pay back the country by giving all I have.”
Mabil continued his ascension this week with strong showings against Korea Republic and Lebanon. Next on the radar for the 23-year-old is the AFC Asian Cup in January, where Australia will be looking to defend their title.
Mabil, who now plays for FC Midtjylland in Denmark after starting out at Adelaide United, has already become something of a poster-boy for diversity in Australia’s multi-cultural society.
And what a role model he is. Articulate, talented and humble, Mabil leads by actions, not just words.
In 2014, Mabil returned to the refugee camp in Kenya, and realised he was now in a position to give back. ‘Barefoot to Boots’ was born.
“The aim of Barefoot to Boots is to help refugees through football,” Mabil says, passionately taking up the back-story to a program he co-founded.
“We realised there was more that could be done. All the kids were not wearing boots. I spoke to team-mates and to Adelaide United, and they were both great in helping. The fans got involved with donating their boots and football equipment.
“Slowly we started to see everyone wearing boots at the camp and participating in football. It also helps with safety, of course, because their feet are protected.
“I’m proud of the difference we have made to the refugees’ lives in four years. The only thing they want is an opportunity and to be seen and not isolated.”
Mabil has now returned to Kenya seven times, and each time his presence sets the place alight, though he has too much humility to consider himself a role model.
“I wouldn’t say (I’m) a role model, but I would like to set a way or open a pathway to show kids that dreams can come true if you want them,” Mabil said. “You have to make sure you are prepared to work and face down the obstacles - because there will be obstacles.
“Barefoot is also now helping in hospitals and education. We have expanded into those environments, but we are still all about football.
“Football has given me an opportunity to create something like that. Football has given me life.”