Thanks to a stranger’s kindness and support, Aref’s life changed course forever. You can help young refugees like Aref by supporting programmes that encourage them to participate in sports and other activities.
I was just 11 years old. But I knew that the situation in Kabul was getting worse. When we played outside we could hear the sound of bombing and gunfire getting louder as the fighting moved closer. One night my Dad shook us awake, “Take what you can carry. We will come back for the rest,” he said. I never saw my home country again.
Arriving in Adelaide I was so excited about starting life in Australia but I had not anticipated the adjustment to a new culture and language. I was a 14-year-old Afghan refugee with different language and customs. I felt like I did not belong.
I found my connection through sport.
The Grange Lawn Tennis Club was close to our house, I would walk past, watching through the fence. I had never seen tennis, I didn’t even know what it was called. I got sick of watching, I wanted to try playing. Eventually I summoned the courage to talk to the coach, “How can I join?” I asked. He said “Have you played before?” I said “No, I know nothing.” He laughed and invited me back the next day. He gave me his son’s racquet and said “If you work hard, I will give you free lessons.” Virgil Goncalves was the coach’s name.
Over time he became more than a mentor to me, he became like a father.
I did not feel comfortable socialising with my peers, I had a stammer, and I did not understand the slang.
My second support network came from an organisation called Multicultural Youth South Australia. They provided me with a mentor when I had no one and a place to meet other refugee kids. By the time I was 18 I had become a mentor myself, but I wanted to do more.
I was inspired to set up the Advantage Refugees Program with Virgil, using tennis to engage refugees. I wanted to share the mateship and sense of connection that I had found through sport. Over the last eight years we have trained hundreds of kids from all over the world. One of the girls is destined to be a top player. Tennis gave her the confidence to make something of her life.
My Dad taught me that there is no good or bad, just different. The kids who come to the tennis program are all different but when they say “This is my club” they become part of the community.
Virgil Goncalves helped me, and his act of kindness has enabled us to empower hundreds of others. I urge everyone, ask yourself, “What can I do to help young refugees and migrants in my community feel a sense of belonging?”.