Kakuma is the most unlikely breeding ground for a professional Australian rules footballer.
The isolated town in the north-west corner of Kenya is the site of a UNHCR refugee camp that has housed tens of thousands of refugees that have fled civil war in Sudan since 1991.
Sydney Swans footballer Aliir Mayom Aliir was born in Kakuma in 1994 and spent the first nine years of his life there.
Football is a way of life for kids in Kakuma. But it is the world game, soccer, not the unique Australian brand, that Aliir played in the camp in Kenya.
“One of the memories that stuck with me was, we would get balloons and blow them up and then we would get clothes and wrap them around them until it was sort of like a soccer ball,” Aliir tells ESPN.
“If you pump up a balloon, it’s just going to pop straight away so we would wrap clothes around it. We would make probably five, and we would have little trees or whatever it is, or maybe a rock, and make that as a goal and we would play soccer until the sun goes down. If that ball pops there’s always a reserve one there and we would play again. I guess just growing up with a big family, soccer was all we did. It was one of the only sports we knew in our country.”
The Australian Football League (AFL) is one of the dominant sports in Australia. The last five-year television rights deal, signed in 2015, yielded more than $2.5 billion for the league and was the biggest TV rights deal in Australian sports’ history. Although it is a domestic sport, the top players earn in excess of $1 million dollars a season.
Most footballers begin their careers playing organised modified matches as kids, on leafy suburban ovals or spacious rural grounds across the country. Aliir’s captain at the Sydney Swans, Josh Kennedy, is one of those, from a long lineage of Australian football royalty. His father and grandfather are legendary playing and coaching figures in the professional game.
Occasionally a footballer emerges from remote indigenous communities, but Australian football is a way of life in those regions.
Only fellow Sudanese refugee Majak Daw — who was drafted by North Melbourne in 2009 as a rookie and has struggled to establish himself in the Kangaroos’ senior team — has travelled Aliir’s path.
Aliir’s family left Kenya to seek a better life in Australia.
“It was a bit strange, coming from a camp, you didn’t have buildings or a big city,” Aliir said.
“Coming to Australia, especially the airport, we weren’t used to seeing white people. Coming here I just felt like I was a different person and it was just strange seeing different things.
“We stayed in government housing with a fridge and things like that that we didn’t have (in Kenya).
“You’d have little pots and that’s where you would cook and there were so many things I’d never seen before.
“It was a bit strange. The buildings, just driving from the airport to the house, I was just amazed as a young kid. It was a very special moment for our family.”
Aliir’s family spent three months in Sydney before moving north to Newcastle, some 160km away from Australia’s most populous city. Three years later the family moved again, further north, to Brisbane.
“That’s where I did all my schooling and picked up basketball, footy (Australian Rules), and all these other sports,” Aliir said.
“Coming here (to Australia) the only sport I knew was soccer. Personally, sport was a way I could connect with other kids. You come into a different country, you don’t know English and you can’t really communicate with people you haven’t seen before. The only way we communicated and talked was through soccer. We didn’t even say anything, we were kicking the ball, kicking goals, celebrating.
“I guess that’s why I love sport so much because it allowed me to connect with a lot of people. It still does.”
Aliir picked up an Australian football for the first time in his teenage years. It is the shape of a rugby ball but slightly heavier. The game is played on large ovals, the size of cricket grounds. Like the kids playing soccer in Kakuma, children in Australia will regularly kick the ball to each other in the street.
“A few mates were having a kick and invited me to come play for Aspley Hornets, which was the junior club around the corner from my house,” Aliir said.
“I wasn’t really a fan of it but I just wanted to try new things. I’d been doing that my whole life.”
Missing a chance to play on the biggest stage of all, at the MCG in front of 100,000 screaming fans, because of injury is often a heartbreaking experience for AFL players. But Aliir took it in his stride.
“I feel like I am a very resilient person and coming from where I’ve come from you can’t really control other things,” Aliir said.
He learnt that trait from his mother: “She’s a very strong woman.
“To be able to do the things she’s done, look after a big family by herself, I probably get a lot of that from her. It just carries you on. Every time you’re at footy training and it’s not going well or you’re playing bad and things like that, you sort of click and just get back in the moment and not worry too much about what you can’t control.”
Aliir has played just three games in 2017. A combination of poor form, injury and a club-imposed sanction, after he overslept and missed a training session, have been the reasons but he is edging closer to a return to AFL ranks.
He continues to be a role model for young kids as an AFL multicultural ambassador.
“Early on it was hard to accept,” Aliir said.
“I’ve never seen myself as a role model or anything like that. But I’ve come to realise I’m in a great position to be able to help the younger guys coming through, especially the multicultural kids. Just going out to schools, young kids come up to you and are just happy to see you and I can help them with a word of encouragement whether they want to play sport or be lawyers or whatever it is, I just encourage them to do that.”
Aliir is an example of what is possible — A refugee from Africa who has become a recognisable name in one of Australia’s biggest professional sports. Such is his talent, he could have easily followed the path of his cousin Thon Maker, who was drafted to the NBA in 2016.
He dreamed of playing soccer as a kid in Kakuma but has forged a career playing a sport he never knew existed. His advice for any youngster is simple.
“Just don’t hold yourself to whatever sport you’re playing,” Aliir said.
“Personally, the only sport I knew was soccer and you can’t just fall in love with one sport.
“You’ve got to be able to try different things. That’s what I did. I guess for a young kid that’s out there that wants to play soccer or wants to be the next Didier Drogba or whatever, yeah, strive for that.
“But then there’s other sports around the world that could take you on another journey. It would definitely be great to see another kid from Kakuma or from Spain or wherever to be able to come over to Australia and play this great game.”