From South Sudan to the Socceroos
Hard work and dedication have taken South Sudanese refugees Thomas Deng and Awer Mabil to the peak of their sport after they debuted for Australia’s Socceroos this month.
The pair both made a first appearance for their adopted country in a friendly match away against Kuwait.
Both were second half substitutes and Awer scored in the 4-0 win.
The skillful winger now plays for FC Midtjylland in Denmark.
But his journey to international football has not been an easy one, starting in a refugee camp in Kenya and culminating in him stepping on to the biggest stage in Australian soccer.
Born in the Kakuma refugee camp after his parents fled South Sudan, he attained refugee status in Australia in 2006 at age 11.
Fellow South Sudanese refugee and Socceroo debutante Thomas Deng, 21, is a product of the Melbourne Victory youth program and was promoted the senior side in 2015.
The defender was born in Kenya and came to Australia at the age of six, making his senior debut for the Victory in 2015.
Both men grew up in Adelaide and played together as juniors.
Awer and Thomas are seen as role models in their community and both give much of their time to youth charities.
“I feel like I am dreaming. The goal is for my mother and my siblings,” Awer said after the match.
“They helped me along in the tough times to get where I am today. This debut is for them,” he said.
His mother, Agot Dau Atem, watched the match on TV and said she was “very happy’ for her son.
Melbourne-based Thomas said being selected to play for Australia was hard to process.
“It is just so crazy that we grew up together as kids and now this,” he said.
“It’s surreal when you think about it. It’s been a long journey. I hope this show kids in our community that nothing is impossible.
“You work hard and opportunities will be given to you,” Thomas said.
But recently, in a media interview Awer said that being racially abused in Australia was “normal”.
But he said Australia had given his family the opportunity to have a second life.
“It’s part of me because I have lived half my life there. I call it home, so I am proud to represent Australia,” Awer said.
He also told of life growing up in the Kakuma refugee camp with his mother, sister and brother.
“We got food from the UN once a month … we had one meal a day, which was dinner. There was no breakfast or lunch,” he said.
Awer has launched a foundation with Adelaide businessman Ian Smith called ‘Barefoot to Boots’.
The charity works with youth in refugee camps, including Kakuma.
“I take boots, football equipment and medicine and donate them to the people living in the camps,” Awer said.
“It was tough living in the camp but it is something I am grateful for and always will be,” he said.
“It has taught me to appreciate the good times and never to give up on my dream,” he said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist