Barefoot Heroes

Awer Mabil and Awer Bul, two young men of South Sudanese origin, visited the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in 2014. The brothers brought with them 20 football shirts to distribute among the young footballers in the camp.

The sprawling Kakuma camp located in Turkana County in arid northwestern Kenya had been their home for years. They had returned to visit their relatives who still lived in the camp. The camp held nearly 170,000 refugees around the time of their visit. The 20 football shirts they had brought with them was a drop in the ocean. Upon their return to Australia, Awer Mabil, a professional footballer and his brother, set up Barefoot to Boots (BTB), aimed at supporting people living in the camp and those in the neighbouring host communities.

Football had been an integral part of Awer Mabil’s life. Born in Kakuma camp, he arrived in Australia in 2006 with his mother and sister, as a ten-year-old. Football scouts noticed him when he played in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. Soon he went on to become a professional, representing Australia and playing in the top leagues of Denmark and Portugal.

Awer Bul, his elder brother, had fled South Sudan as a seven-year-old, along with thousands of young boys, and had arrived in Kakuma in 1992. His journey was harrowing and extraordinary, similar to that of so many of the world’s refugees. He was one of the renowned Lost Boys of South Sudan. These were boys displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1987–2005), in which about 2 million people were killed, and many others were severely affected. The name “Lost Boys of Sudan” was colloquially used by aid workers in the refugee camps in Africa, where the boys were. Awer Bul moved to the United States in 2000. He moved again later to Adelaide in Australia, to be close to his brother Mabil. 

A year after their first visit, the brothers returned to Kakuma. This time they brought with them over 300 kgs of football gear. Their idea had begun to take shape due to the support of benefactors in Australia.

Barefoot to Boots was in action. 

The trees in the Muthaiga suburb of Nairobi wore a clean and fresh look after the rains as I got off the taxi and walked into the heavily guarded Australian High Commissioner’s residence. I was about to meet the two brothers and their BTB patron Ian Smith on their stopover in the city en route to Australia. I was there as a representative of UNICEF. Our field staff in Kakuma had facilitated their visit to the camp the previous week, jointly with the UN refugee agency ( UNHCR).

We sat in the living room, sipping tea. The two tall, lean young men with deep-throated voices and careful English accents recounted their journey. They had run away from conflict, hunger, and the threat of being conscripted. But they had never really walked away from their past and their identity. They had been determined to return to Kakuma, where many of their friends and relatives still resided and wanted to build a support system to boost the education, health, and protection of the young boys and girls who had ended up in the camp hungry, afraid, and very often unaccompanied. 

As I stood up to take leave, I asked them what they wished for in the future. The respectful voice of Awer Bul, the older brother, resonated in my ears – “No one wants to be a refugee nor make another country their home forever. We dream of going home one day. We have everything now, and our talents are well recognised. When our country becomes peaceful, we wish to return and help rebuild it.”

UNHCR reports that there are more people displaced by conflict in the world today than at any point since the second world war. Developing countries are bearing the brunt of the world’s refugee crisis and are hosting most of the record, 70.8 million displaced people who have fled war and persecution. Sadly, half of the world’s forcibly displaced are children, according to UNHCR’s annual flagship report, Global Trends. Opting to become a refugee is a last resort for anyone.

Meanwhile, the Awer brothers are striving to ensure that the dignity of these young people remains intact as they await their turn to move towards a better and more secure chance in life.

2 responses to “Barefoot Heroes”

  1. Again I think of what home means to different people, and when and how we become attached/connected to our home. As someone who has been in the same home for 40 years I have not had to face this. Australia is a community of many people who made their new home here. Does love have something to do with it? I think so.


  2. Amazing story Madhavi ji. Great read indeed. I was there myself during the 2014/2015 refugee influx… never easy to see a child around 5 years carrying a hole family load on her head especially not knowing if your partners did survive the conflict or not!!!


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