At home on the football field
The sun is low in the sky, casting long shadows across the football field. It’s practice night and the boys from Bhutan are keen as mustard, ducking, weaving and dribbling the ball as the coach shouts his commands.
There is a stiff breeze from the west so the operational runway at nearby Melbourne Airport this evening is 09/27, which means the big Boeings and the Airbuses on final approach pass low over the football field, wheels down for landing and engines screaming.
The deafening noise is a challenge for coach Emanuel Saakai – but he is not the least bit perturbed. The lanky Tanzanian is watching from the sidelines, taking note of the boys’ tactics and ball play. His eyes are keen. He misses nothing.
Saakai blows his whistle and runs out to the pack. He divides the lads up into two teams and they listen intently as he imparts the knowledge gleaned over years of playing and coaching football in various parts of the world, including his native Tanzania. The boys dodge, swivel, twist and turn, pass and receive, deftly maneuvering the ball this way and that.
Clearly many of these young teenagers idolize Lionel Messi, the Argentinian legend who plays for FC Barcelona and also captains his national team. A few of them wear Messi Number 10 jumpers. They listen to Saakai with reverent attention and respect. At 30 something, he is, after all, about the same age as Messi; they instinctively know that if they pay close attention to the tips being offered up by this tall guy with the wide smile and spikey hair they could well end up one day shooting goals for the Socceroos.
This is Spectrum at its serendipitous best. Moreover, it is a story of an African, a Bhutanese and an Australian – all of whom have made an amazing difference for a group of people who, until now, had no place to call home.
The Bhutanese boys and their families have recently settled in Australia after years of living in UNHCR camps in Nepal – a heartbreaking legacy of being forced out of their own country as part of the well documented ‘ethnic cleansing’ program. (In 1991 and 1992, over 80,000 Nepalis – part of the Lhotshampa ethnic group that has lived in Bhutan since the 1800s – were dispossessed and moved into refugee camps in Nepal. They have not been allowed entry into Bhutan ever since).
Spectrum’s Refugee Action Program (RAP), under the stewardship of Bryce Spencer, has been a catalyst to help these families to settle, to offer hope and strategies for a new life and to encourage them to feel ‘at home’. Coincidently Emanuel Saakai came to Australia around the same time as Spectrum was helping the Bhutanese settle. Saakai, a qualified football coach, immediately volunteered so that the kids would have a chance to hone their football skills.
For Spencer it was a timely opportunity that dovetailed with RAP’s aims and objectives as a capacity building program that works with refugee communities and helps them to identify their own needs, overcome challenges and develop community-owned projects.
Saakai, an instantly likeable young man who has recently married a Melbourne business executive, is passionate about helping people make their individual ways in the world, regardless of any hardships and challenges confronting them. In his hometown of Arusha, near Mt Kilimanjaro, he founded Lengo Football Academy, a not-for-profit that helps the local kids with basic necessities such as footwear and proper soccer balls to replace the handmade ones fashioned from sticky tape and discarded bits of plastic and other junk.
Lengo is Swahili for goal. That’s precisely why Saakai chose the name. He explains: “I had this vision of trying to help young people who are facing – and will face – the same challenges that I faced. I really wanted to empower the Tanzanian youth so that they could fulfil their dreams and be the best they can be, on and off the football field.
“My dream now is for Lengo to be an institution that can empower young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds to find their purpose in life through football. We started in Africa, however our vision is to empower young people from all countries – including Australia.
Talking about the ideals of Lengo and Spectrum, Saakai finds some delightful synergies. Both have the capacity to remove barriers, build confidence and place ambition and achievement within reach.
“Spectrum is an amazing organisation,” says Saakai. “It plays a very important role in changing the lives of migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum. They have an important part of play by fixing damage caused by selfish people who do not care about humanity.
“It's sad that people have to run away from their home countries because of this damage that's been done. In my short experience with Spectrum I have seen what kind of positive impact they have on the people they are helping simply by welcoming them … helping them feel at home. Spectrum means a lot to them. It's incredible.”
Saakai nods towards the Bhutanese boys who are taking a break from practice, breaking out in fits of laughter as they try to balance balls on their heads. It’s heartwarming stuff. It’s Spectrum RAP stuff. Give the boys a soccer field and they’re at home anywhere.
“These kids all have a natural talent but they haven’t been coached before so they need to refine their methods of play until they are comfortable with the ball,” he says. “It’s all about learning, playing and experience. With this, of course, come friendships, teamwork and leadership skills.”
Another key figure in the football program is Suk, who was born in Nepal but lived in a refugee camp until 2014 when he came to Melbourne under the migrant settlement program.
“My history is hard,” he says, trying to find the right words in English. “Not being in our motherland was difficult. But Spectrum has been a big help. They work with our community and are very supportive. It is hard for us coming to a new country but Spectrum makes us feel at home.”
Suk has played football for more than 15 years – mainly as defender centre-back. In the Nepal camp he played with groups of friends and stuck with them through thick and thin. They came to Australia together with football in their blood. Suk became their sports coordinator.
Spencer was a focal point for the football training. As coordinator of Spectrum’s RAP, he was in an ideal position to put people together to grow the training program. He saw that, on the one hand, Suk had players but no coach and, on the other, Emanuel had coaching skills and experience but no teams. He introduced Emanuel to Suk and within days a plan was hatched. Saakai would train the Bhutanese players – initially the older boys and more recently the Under 14s. It was, says Spencer, a “match made in heaven”.
Says Suk: “It was the best thing when Bryce introduced me to Emanuel. He has helped us to train. He is a very good coach. We feel very lucky. He has lots of experience and he can guide us.
“Emanuel is a good man who gives us really nice training. He is friendly, he shares a similar history to us and he understands the challenges we face. He is friendly, kind and helpful.
“We are very lucky because we have Emanuel as a friend and we also have Bryce and we have Spectrum. They work with our community and are so very supportive. It is hard for us coming to a new country but Spectrum makes us feel at home.”
Clearly, Spencer is delighted with the way the program is working. He nods towards Suk who has wandered over to have a word with Saakai and a few of the lads on the sidelines.
“Suk truly is a great guy,” says Spencer. “He is very community minded and he volunteers in a number of different programs. He is also a volunteer mentor in our driving program at the moment. All in all, he is a great ambassador for his community.”
A wayward ball rolls towards Spencer. He kicks it back, calling out encouragement but the Etihad A380 from Abu Dhabi is a couple of minutes from touching down and drowns his words.
“You know,” he says. “I’m rapt and delighted that the boys are enjoying playing soccer, but the truth is these boys are so committed, enthusiastic and resolute that they were always going to succeed. It’s nice that I could be there to enjoy the experience with them.
“You only need to spend a short period of time with these guys to realise that the amazing strengths, knowledge, wisdom, resilience and histories they bring is truly a blessing.”
In memory of John Allin, 1950 - 2017
Photography by Fi Mims Photography