Aliir wins over Wagga youngsters

This article originally appeared on the SMH website.

By David Sygall

Days after he welcomed Adam Goodes back to training with a hug, Aliir Aliir is seemingly a world away at an AFL multicultural program session in Wagga Wagga showing kids from recently arrived families that Australia’s indigenous game welcomes them.

The Swans player, who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya to Sudanese parents in 1994, spent a couple of hours meeting and greeting mostly Burmese, Afghani and African kids, handing out caps and miniature footballs and passing on the message that they, too, can use sport as a way to integrate.

“This is what football’s all about,” Aliir said afterwards. “The situation that happened last week with Goodesy, you know, it’s just good to get past it and show that the AFL and the community want to get rid of racism.”

Aliir said the children told him they were proud of him and wanted to play AFL.

“I just told them they can make a career in the game if they work really hard. I told them it doesn’t matter if you’re born in a different country. If you want to play AFL you can show all the people who are doubting you that you can do it. Even if they don’t play AFL, it’s just good that they’re playing sport.”

Marc Geppert, AFL NSW/ACT’s participation manager for southern NSW, said the program was proving an effective vehicle for helping families make connections in the local community.

“This program’s been up and running for about five years and for the first couple of years a lot of the kids weren’t transitioning to weekend sport,” Geppert said. “But now we’re getting a lot of kids joining local clubs, which is fantastic. It’s being well received.

“We’ve never had any issues down here in terms of racism or complaints. Wagga’s a priority settlement area and to get those families moving here is great for the town. Seeing kids running around and mixing with different cultures is great.”

Cheryl Cartwright, of the Multicultural Council of Wagga Wagga, said “seeing someone like Aliir, it gives these kids a feeling of possibility”.

“A lot of the kids feel like they’re struggling to fit in, to learn English and all that comes with living in a new country. To see that Aliir has managed to do it is a great example to them. He’s reaching his goal,” Cartwright said.

“It’s so important for young people to feel like they belong with other people in the communities they come to. Especially with AFL being such an Australian tradition, it’s good because they get to mix with other young people but also have the same sorts of conversations if they can talk about Aussie rules.”

One of the players at the camp, Jacob Ochieng, 14, is part of the GWS Giants Academy and played in the World Team that contested the recent national under-16s championships.

Ochieng’s family settled in Australia in 2007 and he and his four brothers came across AFL at school.

“Seeing Aliir is pretty inspirational because you don’t really see many Africans playing AFL as professionals,” Ochieng said. “Seeing him play makes me feel like I can play one day if I work hard.”

Inspiration: Swans player Aliir Aliir charms the mostly Burmese, Afghan and African youngsters at the multicultural camp in Wagga Wagga. Photo: Kieren L. Tilly