‘Blacktown is a better place now’: how a former refugee and coach built pride in his community | Sydney

Boys are working in rows of three down the courtroom. Legs, shouts, the smack of bouncing balls. As one boy passes to a different, the third followers out to take the subsequent move, then he leaps and dunks. Some boys are already in flight and hovering in direction of the basket after they take the ball, nearly delicately, then slam it by the ring.

On the aspect a man in a blue tracksuit watches intently, however not a lot that he fails to see a boy attempting to slide unnoticed into the fitness center, a exhausting factor to do if you find yourself 200cm tall.

The boys training at the Police Citizens Youth Club

“Akuei!” Mayor Chagai calls out. “Why are you late?”

The boy, fingers in the pockets of his black tracksuit pants, appears uneasy. He missed a prepare connection at Granville, he mumbles.


“You’re coming from Campbelltown? What time did you allow?”

“Ten-thirty,” says the boy. That is four-and-a-half hours in the past. To be honest, Campbelltown is nearly 50km from right here, however Chagai is not glad: “Why didn’t you allow at 8?”

Akuei shrugs, appears down, and says quietly: “Mum was at work.”

“And also you needed to take care of the children, proper?” Chagai’s tone softens. “All proper.” However then: “Why didn’t you textual content me? You textual content subsequent time you’re going to be late. OK, leap in.”

A lone basketball.

Akuei enters the road, ready to hitch the boys flowing in waves down the courtroom.

“I wished him to clarify to me what was happening,” Chagai, the founding father of the Savannah Pride basketball membership, says. “If he will get a job and turns up late, then doesn’t talk to the boss why he’s late, then he gained’t have that job.”

Chagai, who left his village in South Sudan on the age of seven and wandered throughout three nations earlier than arriving in Sydney in 2006 as a 22-year-old refugee, desires to show his gamers not solely how to dribble and dunk a ball however how to review and work and take their place in society. He is attempting to develop not simply good basketballers, however nice human beings.

The story unfolding in this spare gymnasium in Blacktown, a western Sydney municipality that comprises a few of Australia’s most deprived city areas, is about greater than sport. It is about how a community and a nation are built.

Singh, Smith and Jones

Begin with map and compass in George Avenue, in the Sydney CBD. Head 30km west and a little north, upriver. At Parramatta, strike west for an additional 10km, up a hill or two, down one other. Once you attain the guts of a extensive open plain, nearer to the Blue Mountains than the ocean, you’re in Blacktown.

It’s not a journey that many Sydneysiders who stay nearer to the ocean ever make. Which is a disgrace, as a result of the joke that journalist Joanne Vella remembers being made in the newsroom of The Blacktown Advocate may properly be true: “You haven’t been to Australia until you’ve been to Blacktown.”


Greater than 4 million folks have arrived in Australia in the previous 25 years. Most newcomers have moved to the massive cities, however few have moved into the inside cities, which have turn out to be gentrified, more and more monocultural, and locked up by prohibitive housing costs. As a substitute, latest migrants have needed to look to the city fringe.

Lueth Awan arrives for training.

As a consequence, an unprecedented transformation of Australia’s inhabitants has occurred out of sight of policymakers, captains of business, arts and tradition leaders, lecturers and journalists.

This century Blacktown has acquired three fundamental streams of migrants: refugees from South Sudan, Bhutan and Afghanistan, amongst different locations; folks of Pacific Island background and Māori; and migrants approaching expert visas, primarily from the Indian subcontinent.

The biggest overseas-born teams immediately are the practically 26,000 residents born in India – Blacktown’s most typical surname in 2015 was Singh, adopted by Smith and Jones – and 22,000 in the Philippines. Blacktown additionally has extra folks born in South Sudan than another municipality in Australia.

These migrants adopted different waves of migrants for the reason that second world warfare: first the British and Irish, then different Europeans, together with Italians, Hungarians, Poles and Maltese, the final of whom got here, in many instances, to work in the market gardens on town’s edge.

Blacktown additionally comprises Australia’s largest city Indigenous inhabitants, of about 10,000 folks. It consists of members of the unique Darug folks, however most Indigenous residents moved to Blacktown from regional New South Wales after 1960.

Joseph Amelsom.

Blacktown’s inhabitants of practically 400,000 numbers about 180 completely different nationwide backgrounds, with greater than 40% of individuals born abroad. As late because the Fifties the municipality was primarily countryside. Which means practically everybody, other than the Darug, is in a method or one other a latest migrant.

From the savannah to the US and Sydney

It is Saturday afternoon on the Police Residents Youth Membership in the Blacktown suburb of Shalvey. The under-18 squad of the Savannah Pride basketball membership has been coaching for quarter-hour, however Chagai – or “coach,” as gamers name him – has been taking coaching periods since 5 in the morning. All Saturday and on weeknights he trains teams from under-12 to open age – about 250 gamers in all, together with 20 ladies.

The gamers are principally South Sudanese, however there are additionally Islanders, Lebanese, Chinese language, Serbians, Italians and Anglos. One white boy from the Central Coast performed only one sport towards Savannah Pride, in which his crew was smashed. He was so impressed that he requested Chagai if he might be part of, and now makes the two-hour journey to Shalvey each weekend to coach.

Chagai retains all his gamers’ numbers in his telephone, and typically these of their mother and father, too. Savannah Pride runs a homework membership (suspended through the pandemic) and Chagai will get mother and father to ship him college reviews. Any pupil suspended from college is quickly banned from video games towards different golf equipment. But when a participant overdoses and finally ends up in hospital, or does one thing that lands him in a police cell, Chagai will flip as much as take him residence.

This membership in western Sydney has caught the attention of the basketball world. American scouts have swooped on Savannah Pride, recruiting 23 of its gamers to play school and highschool basketball in the US. Duop Reath, who represented Australia on the Tokyo Olympics, performed for a time with Savannah Pride. Chagai has featured in The New York Times and on the ABC’s Australian Story, and is the topic of a deliberate film. Joe Mantegna, head coach of Blair Academy, a basketball boarding college in New Jersey, has stated that Savannah Pride is “impacting extra folks than most of us ever do in a lifetime”.

Pachong Malok.

Over two Saturdays on the Shalvey PCYC fitness center, Chagai tells me a little of his lengthy journey from the savannah of Africa to the streets of Sydney. As he speaks of the chums he misplaced alongside the way in which he appears to be carrying sorrow, however when he talks concerning the sport he loves, his face lights up, nearly grows mischievous. He has two sides, however they arrive from the identical place.

Sport, he says, have to be enjoyable, or younger folks won’t play. Much more importantly, gamers who benefit from the sport can study to take dangers and imagine in themselves. The very best gamers are nice, Chagai says, not as a result of they’ve expertise or health, however as a result of they make good selections, freed from worry.

Chagai desires his gamers to play instinctively, to belief themselves and their teammates. Confidence in the sport can result in confidence in work and in life. He realized all this, he says, in his journey by Africa, as a refugee.

The top of a dream

On the age of seven, Chagai left his South Sudanese village, the place his household herded cattle. Over the subsequent 15 years he trekked to Ethiopia, then to the world’s largest refugee camp, Kakuma in Kenya, then again to South Sudan as a little one soldier for the Sudanese Individuals’s Liberation Military.

He left his village with a cousin to keep away from warfare however warfare adopted him. Bombs fell and battles exploded round him and his companions. Many died of sickness or starvation, drowned, or have been eaten by wild animals.

“Almost all of the folks I knew at the moment are useless,” he says. “No meals, no sleep, disguise in the swamp, dig the roots of vegetation to eat. No day, no evening, all time was the identical. Somebody might be strolling round and in the subsequent couple of minutes, useless. So long as you breathe, that’s all you recognize.”

Mayor Chagai is the cofounder of the Savannah Pride basketball club.

In Kakuma, which he reached on the age of 9, he found he had a uncommon present for basketball, and the braveness to play it. He had seen worry kill folks, make them surrender and drown, or die of thirst. However in the savannah, with wild animals throughout, he had overcome his worry. What, then, did he must worry on a basketball courtroom?

As Chagai speaks, a small boy waits respectfully at a distance: might he go residence? “Have you ever known as your mum?” Chagai asks. The boy shakes his head. “Right here,” Chagai fingers the boy his telephone.

“He’s new, very shy,” Chagai says. “Lots of youngsters don’t have any mother and father, or no dads, a lot of single mums. I see myself in them.”

After getting again to South Sudan as a teenager, he performed in Kenya, Uganda, Egypt. His expertise was noticed, and he was provided scholarships to the US, Spain and France. Then he fell throughout a event and badly broke an arm. His dream of a basketball profession in the US died with that fall. He accepted a refugee visa for Australia, and arrived in Blacktown in 2006.

Music beats ‘battle evening’

Each refugee is unfortunate, however whereas camps in some nations have been peaceable, the identical can’t be stated for the South Sudanese, whose journey to Australia was marked by violence, starvation and warfare. Their arrival introduced Blacktown with the largest take a look at of its multiculturalism in its historical past.

The team training.

From the mid-2000s, teams of younger black males may very well be seen hanging across the Blacktown CBD. They have been a part of a quickly rising South Sudanese inhabitants in the municipality. The council felt pissed off that neither the federal nor state authorities had offered any discover – not to mention funding – to assist it handle the change. Many locals have been additionally sad. Some demonstrated in the road, with ugly indicators.

“There was a actual worry on the time,” says Michelle Rowland, who was a Blacktown councillor in that interval and is now MP for the federal seat of Greenway, which covers half of Blacktown.

“Council acquired this fixed suggestions: ‘There are all these tall, darkish folks standing round and I really feel intimidated. This is not the Blacktown I used to know, I don’t really feel like I belong right here any extra.’ I at all times thought it was weird: doesn’t everybody stand round? You’re simply noting that they’re black. However the truth that it by no means boiled over into race riots was actually fortunate. Some non-government organisations stepped in to assist however a lot of the work fell to the native space command of the police.”

The native commander, Mark Wright, had taken the Blacktown job in 2008 with a transient to cut back youth crime, particularly on the station and Westpoint mall. Westpoint had simply turn out to be the primary buying centre in Sydney to ban college students throughout college hours. Teams of younger folks have been stealing with abandon, companies have been leaving the mall.

On Thursday nights, crowds of younger folks would come by prepare from throughout Sydney and collect on the fourth ground of Westpoint to observe younger males of all backgrounds commerce punches. Wright says it was referred to as “battle evening”.

Former Blacktown commander Mark Wright.

Wright started by pulling leaders of ethnic communities, faculties, welfare our bodies, church buildings and a Westpoint supervisor across the identical desk. He requested them one query: what can we do? Out of these conferences emerged many concepts and one coalition: Com4Unity (coming collectively for unity).

An important initiative got here from youth staff, who polled 2,500 younger folks across the prepare station and mall about actions they wished to see in Blacktown. Individuals stated they wished extra alternatives to bop, carry out and play music.

As a consequence, Swap, a dance and music showcase, was held on the identical Westpoint ground the place “battle evening” used to happen. Critically, the occasion was run by younger folks themselves.

“I nonetheless get goose bumps after I give it some thought,” Wright says. “Rotary had the barbecue going, the mayor could be sitting in the entrance row, and you’d have 300 or 400 younger folks singing, dancing – that prime ground was pumping.”

Atem Mayol.

After Wright left his job in 2014, and different Com4Unity leaders additionally moved on, the initiative didn’t survive. But the influence on Blacktown appears to have lasted. “Mark [Wright] had a very large function in remodeling Blacktown,” says Om Dhungel, who sits on the NSW police multicultural advisory council. “Blacktown station was once very scary in a way. Younger folks standing round; you needed to navigate by them so that you didn’t get pushed. That’s all modified.”

One basketball courtroom, two basketballs

When Chagai arrived in Australia in 2006, he discovered the nation unusual, hostile. He and about 10 different younger South Sudanese fashioned a basketball group, however at any time when they tried to play a scrimmage sport on the PCYC in Blacktown, one specific police officer would kick them out. A Parramatta stadium additionally kicked them out. I ask him why he thought that occurred. “We have been completely different, and we have been black.”

When the group tried to play scratch video games on out of doors courts round western Sydney, teams of boys would seem and problem them to a sport. Usually the boys have been Islanders however some have been Lebanese, Aboriginal, Caucasian. The Sudanese at all times gained, which frequently triggered fights. Typically the boys would go away and return with baseball bats, even knives. Chagai was spending all his time pulling away his boys, who wished to battle again. He was close to despair.

At some point a Sudanese chief in Blacktown, Ajang Deng Biar, known as him. The multicultural liaison officer at Blacktown police, Assefa Bekele, wished to satisfy the basketballers. Warily, Chagai and seven different younger males agreed to attend a assembly with police commander Wright.

Within the assembly Wright acquired straight to the purpose: what did the gamers want? Chagai stated they wanted only one night on a basketball courtroom and basketballs, as that they had no cash.

Wright stated he would organize a month’s trial on the PCYC. If there have been fights or different troubles, they have been out, but when the trial went properly, police would lengthen it. Chagai requested: when is this going to begin? “Proper now,” stated Wright. And he, Biar, one other Sudanese chief, Mary Mamur, and the gamers left the assembly and walked by the streets of Blacktown to the PCYC. Wright booked them in.

He additionally booked a assembly for 2 days later, at which he laid out the brand new strategy to the officer who had banned the Sudanese. Bekele took the gamers to Insurgent Sport in Westpoint and purchased them two basketballs.

Joseph Amelsom.

The trial was a success. Wright helped the group safe a three-year grant from the Division of Immigration to pay 4 part-time salaries. He additionally joined the Savannah Pride board, and is now chair. “What began out as a mentor relationship has turn out to be rather more than that,” says film-maker Brendan Fletcher, who is making a film on Savannah Pride. “Mayor has no household right here, and only a few elders in Sydney who can play that function for him. Mark is one.”

Basketball NSW and the Ladies’s World Cup have requested the membership to run a trial “dads and daughters” program specializing in South Sudanese households. Involving ladies is a problem, Chagai says. “We try to construct up, however Sudanese mother and father don’t like their daughters enjoying sport or being too lengthy out of the home.” Chagai says Sudanese boys obtain extra consideration as a result of their struggles have been extra seen, however “a lot of women are struggling mentally – they simply disguise it”.

‘Blacktown is a better place now’

Chagai has to return to teaching. I speak to others on the sidelines of the fitness center. “Coach is actually robust, but it surely’s to get one of the best out of us,” says Isaac (Achek) Chol, an 18-year-old participant whose uncle is Deng Adut, the felony lawyer from Blacktown who was the 2017 NSW Australian of the Yr. Chol says that Chagai “doesn’t sing out, however he tells us straight up once we’re being lazy, and in case you don’t prefer it, robust”.

Chan Deng.

This yr Chol acquired into Macquarie College, however to review enterprise administration, not regulation, as he had hoped. He was downcast, however Chagai instructed him to not lose coronary heart; he might switch later. “He’s positively made me extra resilient,” Chol says.

“Mayor is a stunning, stunning man,” says Kasia Rettig, a Polish immigrant whose 15-year-old son, William, performs with Savannah Pride and coaches its youthful boys. “My boy doesn’t see his father. Mayor has been like a father to him.”

Savannah Pride started as a South Sudanese membership. However in 2015 three gamers who went to boarding college in Bathurst requested if they may deliver two white buddies, Will and Daniel, to coaching; these gamers are nonetheless with the membership immediately.

By phrase of mouth and socialising after video games, gamers from different African backgrounds joined, and some Iraqis, too. A Ghanaian had an Indian pal – might he come alongside? Two Islander boys joined after Chagai and Joe Tau, the youth employee who had helped to run Com4Unity, organised three camps to diffuse longstanding conflicts between boys of Sudanese and Islander backgrounds. In time, Savannah Pride grew to become the varied membership it is immediately.

Mayor Chagai says that Australia stays a “very robust” setting for South Sudanese folks, but over time he has turn out to be an optimist about Blacktown.

Mayor Chagai talking to the team at the end of the training session.

He says that when he first arrived in Blacktown, “folks would spit on us, name us cockroaches. The police would harass youngsters – I wrote so many letters to Mark Wright about it. Now we Africans have gotten achievements in sport, folks have gone to college, joined the police pressure. In Blacktown, we nonetheless have a few racists, however they’re being outnumbered by people who find themselves prepared to say, ‘Blacktown is a better place now.’ That’s a tremendous factor that has occurred.”

Chagai says he’ll always remember one thing Lorraine Landon, a Savannah Pride board member, instructed him 10 years in the past. “I used to be very upset. I saved listening to, ‘These refugees are dangerous.’ I stated to Lorraine, ‘When are we going to turn out to be accepted in this nation?’

“She stated, ‘Mayor, this a dangerous half of people that really feel entitled to say that solely they’re Australian. It’s not honest, it’s not good, however you need to be resilient. It occurred to the Italians, the Vietnamese, the Chinese language. It’s a must to battle by it, and it can fade away. However it can by no means go away if folks don’t battle by it, positively. Australia is a nice nation that welcomes everybody. It’s going to welcome you.’

“I felt so deeply about what Lorraine stated,” Chagai remembers. “I assumed, ‘That’s true’.”

Chagai has sat with younger males charged with critical crimes, who’ve requested to see him from their cell. “It takes a village to boost a little one is an African proverb,” he jogs my memory.

One of the boys walking into to the locker room at the PCYC.

Simply the opposite day, certainly one of his gamers, Akol Mawein, texted him from the College of Oklahoma, the place he is on a scholarship value a whole lot of 1000’s of {dollars}.

Mawein despatched Chagai a photograph of him mopping the ground on the Blacktown PCYC with an Islander boy, an Aboriginal boy and a couple of white boys. Individuals in Oklahoma didn’t know the place he got here from, Mawein texted. “This is the place the place I began bouncing a ball after I was 10.”

Chagai first known as his membership Star Basketball, however six years in the past, he gave it the title it has immediately. He wished to honour the chums he had misplaced. He was the fortunate one. He had survived the savannah. He wished others to outlive it, too.

“We share some fates with the wild animals,” he says. He nonetheless remembers watching the animals collect on the savannah, underneath the shade of the timber. “They simply sit there collectively. We, too, are a group of individuals getting collectively – as a group, as a household, as a pride.”

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