Swapping the lush green soccer fields of Australia for the arid dusty plains of Kenya, Awer Mabil will make the long journey back again to his birthplace at the Kakuma refugee camp to deliver hundreds of pairs of football boots and sports gear to children.
Barefoot to Boots, an Australian initiative to provide football boots, shirts and balls to refugees, can provide joy and improve health and safety for those living in refugee camps, its creators said today ahead of their trip later this month.
Supported by Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, Barefoot to Boots will kick off on June 20 when a five-person team leaves for Kakuma Refugee Camp in north-western Kenya.
Australian and Adelaide United star Awer Mabil and his older brother Awer Bul, fellow United player Osama Malik, former diplomat Rachael West and businessman Ian Smith have formed Barefoot to Boots with the backing of Qantas, FFA, UNHCR, UNICEF Australia and the Australian Government.
Minister Bishop said: “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.”
Kakuma is the second largest refugee camp in Kenya, home to around 180,000 refugees. The majority comes from South Sudan and Somalia.
“My brother and I lived in Kakuma for many years. 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,” Awer Mabil, 19, said today.
“With our friends, Ossie, Rachael and Ian, and with the support of Qantas and the Government and wonderful people at FFA, UNHCR and UNICEF Australia, we are returning this year with several hundred pairs of boots and shirts and many footballs.
“To make this sustainable, we aim to transport more gear during the year, once we have built stronger relationships through this visit with the relevant organisations and refugees in Kakuma. We also plan to return each year,” added Mabil, who was born in Kakuma.
Born in Sudan before finding refuge in Kakuma as a young boy, Awer Bul said: “Our trip is not just about football. Working with UNHCR and UNICEF programs we believe we can help, even in a small way, improve refugees’ health, provide a greater sense of safety, particularly for girls and women, and give people greater happiness.
“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.
“Girls and women should be able to play as much as boys and men. For many reasons in these camps, it can be very difficult for women and girls. We want our gear to be shared in the camp to encourage everyone to be able play together.”
Osama Malik’s father is from northern Sudan and the trip has special meaning to him.
“Dad comes from the same part of the world and Mabil and I have a bond at United that we share with players of similar backgrounds here and overseas; football has given us a privileged position and we want to give back.
“It is the only global sport that can bring people together and reflecting these links we will link up with the Kenyan Football Federation, through the help of the FFA, to see how we can work together with fellow footballers over there in the future.”
Rachael West worked previously with the Australian Embassy in Washington before returning to Adelaide, and welcomed the opportunity to get involved.
“These sorts of trips can be complex, requiring goodwill from governments and, through the NGOs, an understanding of cultural sensitivities to ensure they are successful,” Rachael said.
“There will be a lot to learn from this trip to make it work for the future. Upon our return we have committed to writing a report in order to see how Barefoot to Boots can have a meaningful and lasting impact for Kakuma and other refugee camps,” Rachael said.
Awer Mabil, and his older brother Awer Bul, fellow United player Osama Malik and the rest of their travelling team will leave Kakuma Refugee Camp on June 20.