As the Australians finally progress to the next year’s World Cup in Russia, it could be a fairy-tale journey for one player. This player is the uncapped, Kenya-born, 22-year-old refugee named Awer Bul Mabil, and this is his story.
Awer Bul Mabil was born in Kakuma, Kenya on 15th September, 1995. He was born to South Sudanese parents who had fled their war-torn homeland. In an exclusive interview to FIFA.com, he exclaimed, “I actually consider myself South Sudanese, even though I have never actually visited the country”1. Mabil lived in the Kakuma Refugee Camp until 2006. “It’s a bad place to live,” he said. “The UN brought food but it was only every fortnight, so you had to use it wisely to last two weeks. We had my grandparents and cousins. So it was hard. There were about ten of us.”
The refugee camp in Kakuma, located in northwestern Kenya, was established in 1991 as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camp. It was set up temporarily to host about 12,000 unaccompanied minors fleeing the war in Sudan. By 1993, the camp was housing around 21,000 refugees—16,000 of whom were children2. Kakuma is situated near the borders of Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia, in the poorest region of Kenya. Despite having an area of only 12 square miles, it is now home to 180,000 people, with roughly 60% of the population being South Sudanese or of South Sudanese descent. To put the size of the camp into context, the closest significant city—Lodwar—has a population of 49,000.
Many inhabitants of Kakuma are long-term refugees, who live in despair, hoping for a third-country resettlement—an arrangement where another nation agrees to admit them and grant permanent settlement.
Kakuma is the second-largest refugee camp in Kenya and the world’s third-largest refugee camp. Even though it faces malnutrition and diseases like malaria, the camp still has better health facilities and a higher percentage of children in full-time education compared to the local Kenyan community. This has regularly given rise to violent tensions between the refugees and the local community, since the latter (unfairly) think that the formers are better off.
However, there’s always hope in this world. In Kakuma, hope is in the form of incredible talents like Mabil.
There are more.
An ex-refugee, Mesfin Getahun, has created a thriving business empire2, and there are 592 registered sports teams in the camp—73 of which are women’s. Some of these clubs have been recognised, against all the odds, at the highest level of competitive athletics. Former Kakuma residents and Olympic runners James Chiengjiek and Yiech Biel escaped war in South Sudan as teenagers, and often trained without shoes. Biel said “I can show to my fellow refugees that they have a chance and a hope in life. Through education, but also in running, you can change the world”3. Both were part of a team of ten athletes selected to be part of the Refugee Olympic Team that competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In 2014, Mabil returned to Kakuma for the first time since leaving for Australia. Mabil and his Reds team-mate Osama Malik went to Kakuma and donated boots, shirts, and balls to refugees. The following June, Mabil launched the Barefoot to Boots campaign in Kakuma, saying “It was an amazing feeling giving back to the kids and people there”4.
What started as a donation of sports equipment quickly developed to include health and educational support. As Mabil says, “We returned in 2014 with a few football shirts and realised from the response that we could do more if we brought together the right people and created a sustainable program”5.
The charity has received the backing of Qantas, FFA, UNHCR, UNICEF Australia, and the Australian Government, with the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop offering her support, “The Australian Government is happy to support initiatives, such as Barefoot to Boots, which build friendships and promote development through sport. Participation in sport helps people learn important life skills like teamwork, leadership and respect”5.
As a youngster Mabil recalled how much the sport meant to him,“I started playing with my brothers and friends in Kakuma when I was about five or so. We would just go outside and start kicking around. It was not structured and there was little else to do”4.
Through the charity, more children in Kakuma will be able to play football, benefit from the support, and make a positive impact on other areas of their lives, something which Mabil recognises. “Having lived in the camp and now having my own children, I realise how important it is for children to play sport. It helps them with education and it helps their health. If they play sport they are more likely to be more alert in school”5.
We take for granted our access to multiple sports channels showing various football leagues. However, growing up in Kakuma, the reality was different for Mabil, He recalls, “If I wanted to watch football on television, I would have to walk one to two hours to a place where there was a television. I would then have to pay a small amount and sit down to watch the games. When they were finished, I would walk back”1.
Mabil’s parents and three siblings moved to Australia with the help of an uncle, and were granted entry as refugees. Soon after his arrival in an unfamiliar land, Mabil did what was most natural to him—play football. Mabil’s talent as a determined, pacey winger brought him to the attention of the South Australian National Training Centre. The centre is run by the Football Federation South Australia. Scholarships are awarded each year to athletes who show the potential to represent Australia. In 2011, in recognition for his achievements, Mabil received the Player of the Year award.
The following year, Mabil represented Campbelltown City in the National Premier Leagues South Australia—a semi-professional football competition in the state of South Australia.
In the youth team at Adelaide United, Mabil was the inaugural recipient of the Martyn Crook Foundation’s Rising Star award. Established in memory of former Australian goalkeeper and Australian under-17 coach Martyn Crook, the foundation’s aim is to support the development of outstanding talent in young Australian players. “Nothing makes me happier than when we helped Awer,” Crook’s widow Julie has said.
While with Adelaide United’s youth team, Mabil, still earning about $50 a week, made his senior debut on 11 January 2013 in an A-League match against Perth Glory. He was 17 years old, and became the second-youngest player to play in an A-League game6.
As with all young players, Mabil could only take grab the chances that the coach was prepared to give him. Fortunately for the novice winger, coach John Kosmina was always keen to give young players opportunities as long as they were performing well in the youth team and mentally prepared to step up to the senior squad. After Fabio was injured, Kosmina recognised Mabil’s potential. Here’s what he had to say: “We’ve lost one sort of player so if you look at him (Mabil) and Fabio it’s almost like for like. They’re both quick and good dribblers and they’re both natural wide right players”7.
The following season, Mabil was awarded a professional Reds contract, worth about $40,000, for the 2013-14 season. His first goal for the club was scored in a 2–1 away loss to Wellington Phoenix. Adelaide United ended the season winning the Football Federation Australia (FFA) Cup. For his individual performances, Mabil was awarded the FFA U-20 Male Player of the Year award. In January 2015, Mabil went on trial with Dutch giant Ajax Amsterdam.
At the age of 19, less than a decade since arriving Down Under from Africa, Mabil made the second intercontinental journey of his life—moving to FC Midtjylland in Denmark in July 2015. The Danish Superliga club reportedly paid an amount of AU$1,300,000 for Mabil, making the deal the most expensive transfer in A-League history6. Mabil signed a five-year deal with the club, whose owner also runs Brentford FC in England. Mabil made his league debut on 16 October, 2015 against Randers FC, and later the same month, made his UEFA Europa League debut at home against Napoli.
At the start of the new season in August 2016, Mabil was loaned to Esbjerg fB for the 2016-17 campaign. This move also aimed to allow him to get more game time and develop. Esbjerg coach Colin Todd was impressed by the wide man’s speed and dynamism as well as his strong determination and mentality. The former England international told the club’s website, “Mabil has played for FC Midtjylland, but the competition in the team is fierce and we hope he can realise his potential and deliver at Esbjerg”8.
Despite only making a small impression in his first season away from Australia, and admitting to being frustrated at a lack of playing time, Mabil was determined to force his way into the team and make the most of his new opportunity. Here’s what he had to tell FourFourTwo: “I need to keep developing and playing games is really important for me in the next one to two years”9. As he had done when he first broke into the team in Adelaide, Mabil was prepared to work hard in training, showing the natural strength of character.
It was a debut of mixed fortunes as Mabil was involved in the build-up for Esbjerg’s first goal, but was later sent off for retaliating after he was pushed by AGF’s Martin Spelmann. By the end of his second season in Europe, Mabil had gained a lot of experience—playing 32 matches, scoring six goals and setting up six more. However, Esbjerg fB were relegated to the Danish First Division that year.
In the summer of 2017, Mabil was loaned out for a second consecutive season by his parent club FC Midtjylland. The temporary move to Paços de Ferreira in Portugal was another chance for Mabil to get more first-team opportunities.
Mabil was first called up by Australia in August 2013 for the Comité Organizador del Torneo Internacional de Fútbol Sub-20 (COTIF) tournament. The tournament was used by the FFA to prepare players for their 2014 AFC U-19 Championship campaign. However, things started to go south when Mabil and the Football Federation Australia kept encountering hurdles on their quest to get his birth certificate from the Kenyan authorities. Finally, Mabil was only allowed to feature after FIFA granted Mabil international status only a few months before the tournament.
Mabil was called up by the Socceroos for the final play off in the Asian section of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification. However, he remained an unused substitute as Australia progressed past Syria.
If his game continues to progress, the winger could be representing his national team at the World Cup in Russia next summer. This would be such a magical journey for the young man who recalls his first time watching the Football World Cup outside the Kakuma camp. “Suddenly, it was like living a different life. We no longer lived in a small hut, and I no longer had to walk hours to watch a game of football. It was the time of the 2006 World Cup and even though I supported no team, I remember being glued to the television”1.
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This article originally appeared on Goalden Times.