Migrating to Australia in 2012 was the “best thing” to ever happen to Albert Mambo.
But the 25-year-old admits that for a while there he thought he’d made a mistake.
“There were times I wanted to be back in welcoming Uganda,” he said.
He and his mother established themselves in Eumemmerring, about 40 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, and Albert said he spent most of his first year Down Under watching television in his bedroom.
“People think once you move to Australia all your problems are over, but you are starting again from the bottom,” he said.
“Yes, it is a great country, but it is not easy making new friends and starting at a new school.”
His experiences prompted him to start I Speak Football three years ago.
The program uses weekly soccer training sessions as a vehicle to help migrant kids build friendships and develop social skills.
Now more than 400 boys and girls from migrant backgrounds are packing out fields across Melbourne, and Albert’s thoughts of moving back to Uganda are all but a distant memory.
It’s not just about football
I Speak Football is a joint initiative between the Centre for Multicultural Youth, Global Cityzens and Melbourne City Football Club (MCFC).
The program tackles the problem of social isolation while teaching football and English language skills.
The weekly training sessions are run by youth leaders, many of whom come from migrant backgrounds themselves.
Sue Crow, MCFC’s head of community, said the program had grown exponentially in 2018.
There are now six sessions run across Melbourne, including at Fitzroy, Collingwood and Tarneit, with a good mix of boys and girls attending.
“They’re often very nervous at first, but by the end of it they’re saying, ‘I can’t wait until next week’.”
Creating a level playing field
Helen Kapalos, chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, said sport was an effective way to foster social inclusion.
“No matter where you have come from you can make a connection with someone else over sport.”
She said this applied to connecting migrant communities to the wider Australian community.
“Programs often focus on introducing migrants to other migrants, which is great, but what we really need is for all Australians to come together.
“That’s where sport comes in; it cuts across all society. Everyone is equal on the sporting field.”
From student to coach
Wilson Poni, 19, attended I Speak Football sessions and now coaches at Fitzroy and Collingwood.
Like Albert, he had trouble making friends when he arrived in Melbourne from South Sudan in 2003.
He said the program introduced him to hundreds of people and helped him embrace life in his new country.
“I loved it and these kids love it now,” he said.
“I now hope to pass on my knowledge to other people.
“I want them to learn to engage with other kids, to make friends and to not be afraid.”