Sydney AFL defender Aliir Aliir is preparing to make his mark in the most Australian of all sports, but it was another code that helped him deal with growing up in a refugee camp.
The Sudanese refugee was born and spent at least the first seven years of his life in a camp in Kenya.
“There was too too many things going on (in Sudan)and she (my mum) didn’t want us to end up dead, so she just thought it was probably best to move,” said Aliir, who will make his AFL debut against the Lions in Brisbane on Sunday.
His father died before the family moved to Australia, but Aliir doesn’t look back on his early years as being miserable despite the tough start to his life.
“My memories from back home was just making a soccer ball out of a balloon and wrapping it with old clothes and just having a kick with mates and brothers and relatives,” Aliir said.
“I was just a kid, I just wanted to have fun. I was happy to be around my family.
“Reading things about it (the camp) now, people say `it’s all this and all that’, but for me it wasn’t miserable.”
Growing up in Australia, Aliir spent time in Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane and Perth.
It was only in high school in Queensland where he was coaxed into trying Australian rules by friends.
“At first, I didn’t really want to, I didn’t know what the game was, all I did was soccer,” Aliir said.
“Soccer is a pretty basic game, just kicking it to each other.
“The first thing was learning to kick the footy rather than the round ball. It took a bit of time to learn that.
“Just understanding the game, where to run, how it works, goals, and things like that it was hard at first.
“But all my mates were crazy footy guys so they were eager to help me and teach me.”
He said his father believed he would play sport one day, but Aliir said it wasn’t until he was 18 that he thought he could make a living out of being a professional footballer.
Aliir was initially inspired by the athleticism of West Coast ruckman Nic Naitanui and spent time in his junior days trying to take hangers.
He has also been inspired by North Melbourne’s Majok Daw, the first AFL player of Sudanese heritage.
“He’s been huge for me, he calls me every now and then, just to ask how I’m going, how footy is going,” Aliir said.
“He’s been a massive factor to me in me wanting to make it to the AFL.”