Sporting chance for refugee

Peter Ajang with his mother Nyahwut Majok and siblings Alou, left, Nyakuen and Achol. Picture: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

With a ball that bounces more oddly than anything he could have imagined as a young Sudanese refugee in Kenya, football - and life in Australia - is helping Peter Ajang and his family smother their tragic past.

Mr Ajang turned 21 on New Year's Day. It was a privilege denied a sister he never met because she died of starvation after their family were separated during Sudan's civil war.

Her memory is driving him to help build a better life for his family and others through his work in Australian Rules football.

He fled with his mother to Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp at age three in 1996. They stayed for a decade before using an American-based uncle's contacts to help them move to Australia.

It was then, in 2006, that he last saw his father Deng, who is still yet to meet the youngest of his five children now in WA.

All they have at present is twice-a-week phone calls, each costing $10 for five minutes, to hold together their family bond.

The WA Football Commission recently employed Mr Ajang as a multicultural co-ordinator of more than 40 programs and events involving more than 4000 participants.

He hopes to use the role to help other multicultural recruits live out an AFL dream lost to him when he broke his leg during a game in 2010, but he is also using it to give his siblings a hope and direction his sister never knew.

"During the war, mum couldn't run with her so she gave my sister to my grandma," he said.

"She thought my grandma had a better chance of escaping than her. Along the way, they lost track. Then my grandma came back and told my mum what happened. Hunger … you just died of hunger."

He talks like a man beyond his years as he explains how he encourages others not to be pushed around easily.

"I'm the eldest in the family and I want my younger brothers and sisters to look up to me as being a role model to some young people in the community," he said. "But it's not only for my brothers and sisters, it's for other young people in the community."

He dreamed through childhood of becoming a soccer superstar as he booted around plastic bags of rubbish on makeshift Kenyan "grounds" of grass or sand.

But he cuts the pose of a natural with a footy in his hands as he tells of his love for the West Coast Eagles, particularly captain Darren Glass.

He also reveals the challenges of moving to Perth, where he has met close relatives for the first time. The challenges include learning English and everyday things taken for granted in Australia, such as collecting change.

"We didn't know anything about the money and to go to the shop just to buy some things for $10, we'd give them $50 and sometimes walked away thinking we'd paid the price," he explained.

Mr Ajang's father was a soldier in the war and now lives in the South Sudan capital of Juba, holding down a government job.

"It is really tough, but just hearing him on the phone calms you down a bit to know that he's around," he said.

"Just knowing that he is fine and everybody in the family is OK is a good thing.

"Knowing dad agreed to let his wife go to another country was a big decision for them to make. But I think they did it because they wanted a better life for their children. Hopefully, one day, we will meet him again."

WAFC game development general manager Warren Nel said West Coast and Fremantle's record financial contribution last year of nearly $12 million to the sport's grassroots had allowed the governing body to employ people such as Mr Ajang.

"Without the funding from our AFL clubs and Patersons Stadium, we wouldn't be able to support more than 160,000 grassroots footy participants and run our community engagement programs for multicultural, female and indigenous participants," Mr Nel said.