A simple footy story by Les Everett

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A goal celebration. Africa style. All photos by Les Everett.

People come to Australia from all over the world. How do we bring them to Australian Rules football? Here’s how a school, an amateur football club and the West Australian Football Commission (WAFC) went about it.

May Huang doesn’t have much of a footy background. In fact her background is in China. However when she began working with migrant and refugee students at North Lake Senior Campus she quickly saw a place for Australian Rules football in their lives.

“For me it was very simple,” May said, “If you live here and work here you have got to play or know about footy, it’s one of the best ways to assimilate. Once students start working that’s when they can start a conversation – it’s about footy.”

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Maths teacher and footy coach. May Huang using the final score to make a teaching point.

Students at the Intensive English Centre (IEC) at North Lake took part in a program run by the WAFC’s community engagement coordinator Liam Anthony – his achievements of 58 games for North Melbourne and a Lynn Medal with East Fremantle would have meant nothing to the enthusiastic group of young people he encountered. But they were keen to learn.

A game was organised with the IEC at Cyril Jackson Senior Campus – it was in part chaotic, intense, funny and thrilling – just like most games of footy. A group of young men from North Lake asked about playing for a real footy club. A group of young women, who had noticed the AFLW,  asked, “What about us?”

Suddenly May found she was more than a maths teacher, she was a footy manager and a footy coach. She even found a couple of assistants in IEC teacher Judy Natale and IEC program co-ordinator Sean Bruce-Cullen.

Liam went looking for a suitable club for six newcomers to the game. He found Fremantle CBC a Western Australian Amateur Football League club that has seven teams including one in A-grade.

Soon Michael Hlungupi from Zimbabwe, John Kuch and James Moses (South Sudan), Jonathan Gakona and Patrick Jerome (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Mohammad Ali (Afghanistan) were training, getting to know the game in a different way, learning to be part of a footy club. Patrick injured a knee in a pre-season game and, after a reconstruction, required a long period of rehabilitation. Transport difficulties made it too hard for James and he reluctantly stepped away from the club. In 2018 he gained a bricklaying apprenticeship. He’d displayed his enterprise by starting his own little business at North Lake in 2017 making and selling kitchen chopping boards to raise money towards his white card.

Michael, John, Jonathan and Ali began playing colts. By this time Michael was a footy nut. He was wearing a Fremantle Dockers scarf to school every day – winter and summer. “Footy was an excuse to stop playing soccer and to try something new, that’s how it started,” he said. “CBC is a great club and everybody is very supportive. I just try to improve in any way I can and I surprised myself by learning to kick straight.” When CBC played a semi final in 2018 Michael was captain of the team. His kicking had become quite a weapon – in the semi final each of his six first-half kicks led to a shot for goal by a team mate.

John became a bit of a cult hero at his new footy club, they called him a tackling machine. His running capacity means he can play anywhere. His kicking remains a work in progress. Athleticism is Jonathan’s greatest asset, Ali’s is strength.

“I didn’t know what this footy was when Miss May told us about it,” John said. “But I got used to it. It’s a good game for using my energy and meeting people and I enjoy the wins. May and Liam, I’m very grateful to them, they did a great job.”

In the meantime the young women at North Lake got their wish. They’ve now played three games with Cyril Jackson – the first was a draw, CJ won the second by a point while in the 2018 encounter a goal by Sini Phromduang with six seconds remaining gave North Lake a victory. During the game she displayed a skill rare at all levels of the game – the ability to kick equally well with either foot. Quizzed about this after the match the Thai-born Sini was matter-of-fact. “Left or right. It’s all the same to me.”

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Action. North Lake vs Cyril Jackson.

Zainab Baboli, originally from Afghanistan, was the star for North Lake in the first two games. She was quick to realise you could run and weave when you got hold of the ball. Zainab, who was captain of the North Lake team, said she’d never even seen the game before Liam came to North Lake. “I thought, ok let’s try this it looks interesting. Now I just love to play. Footy is a really exciting game and you use everything not just feet like in soccer.”

Team mate Grazeil Calimbo, who came to Australia from the Philippines, said it was Zainab who told her about footy. “I like it when the other team gets the ball and you just want to get it off them. Other games are just not interesting compared to footy.”

Visits from Fremantle AFLW player Gemma Houghton and veteran Docker Michael Johnson helped fan the footy flame for students at North Lake as did attending AFL and AFLW games and the WAFL men’s and women’s grand finals.

At a recent lunchtime meeting at North Lake, Liam met another batch of players keen to take on footy at club level.

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The WAFC’s Liam Anthony with the North Lake women’s team.

This footy story will continue, however it did reach an emotional peak at Fremantle CBC’s club champion evening in October. Michael, John, Jonathan and Ali were called to the stage for a special presentation. Liam began by thanking the club for welcoming the players with open arms, “I love these boys as I’m sure all the people at the club do,” he said. “This presentation is really significant to how footy incorporates multicultural communities into our great game.”

He then handed over to club president Brad Grant who began by pointing out that Ali had a car and Michael lived nearby: “But poor old Johnny and Jonathan have got to travel two hours back and forth just to get to school.

“So part of our fundraising this year was to raise enough to get a car that Johnny will manage but it’s all the boys’ car and they can go to the footy together.” Club members had provided new wheels and minor repairs to get the vehicle into top shape. Brad said he would create a roster to allow John to get his supervised hours as an L-plate driver.

And there was more to the presentation. John has not seen his parents for four years and the club raised enough for a return airfare to Africa to enable a reunion.

“I will never be able to repay the people at Freo,” John later reflected, “All I can do is to be a good person at the club and improve my footy. I am so grateful for what they did.” He will move into Year 12 at North Lake Senior Campus in 2019 following a business pathway. He’d one day like to own a small supermarket.

Michael graduated from North Lake in 2017 and is currently studying geology at Murdoch University.

Jonathan and Ali completed Year 12 this year. At North Lake’s valedictory ceremony Jonathan won an award as the top Certificate II in Sports Coaching student while Ali was awarded a VET certificate for outstanding application in Industrial Studies.

In 2017 May Huang won the most outstanding multicultural program award at the WAFC School Ambassadors presentation and the Bashar Houli Community Award for outstanding contribution to the Islamic community.

John Kuch summed up this amazing team effort pretty well: “I love the game now. That’s it!”

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Part of a team: (L-R): Patrick, Jonathan, Ali, John, Michael & James at the Fremantle CBC jumper presentation in 2017.

Writer’s note: I work part-time at North Lake Senior Campus. Over the past two years I’ve observed this process, taken photographs and spoken to the key players without being involved in a hands-on way.

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