Gérald Mballe : “We did not communicate a lot orally, but we used to understand each other thanks to football”
On 17 November 2021, ISCA (International Sport and Culture Association) organised the IRTS (Integration of Refugees Through Sport) Awards Ceremony. It was an occasion for Sport and Citizenship to meet Gérald Mballe, winner of the award “Role Model”. Through this vote, the European public considered that through his actions, he was a model for other refugees. Here is his testimony.
By Lilia Douihech-Slim, journalist
In northern Cameroon, where separatists, terrorists and government forces are fighting one another, my family life was unstable which led me to the migratory routes. But I don’t want to talk about these traumas anymore. Today I am 23 years old, and I am an advisor for the “United with Refugees” programme within Special Olympics Europe Asia (SOEA). This organisation helps people with and without mental disabilities by connecting them through sport.
October 2014: I am convinced that by opening up to this man I did not know, without telling myself that I would not return to Kolofata, my uncle wanted to give me a chance. Therefore, I followed this smuggler, hoping to find a safer place to live: Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Algeria again and then Libya. For a year, I remained silent both because of the language barriers and because of the fear of reprisals.
November 2015: On the boat of the Italian coastguards that was safely taking us to Pozzallo in Sicily, we were about 100. We were taken into care by the Red Cross and sent a reception centre in Settimo Torinese, an industrialised town of about 48,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Turin. We were provided with basic necessities, and we were provided with psychological recovery sessions.
After a little while and several steps that will allow me to be granted asylum in Italy, I felt ready to discover this new land. But the reception centre was far away from everything, we didn’t understand the language and the local community had hardly ever been confronted with migrants before. Although the places for exchanges and discussions – libraries, cinemas, museums or bakeries – were also open for us, we did not feel welcome. I needed the help of Luigi Petrillo, my educator, to accompany me there and to encourage me to take Italian lessons.
January 2016: When the reception centre suggested that I could get involved in voluntary activities, I saw an opportunity to feel useful. The principles on which the Red Cross movement is based made sense. Therefore; I brought food to Italian families who couldn’t get a plate of pasta at home. I realised that I was not the only one in trouble, despite the fact that I was black. I told myself, “You have to fight son because this is not paradise; look at how they live. You must fight even harder than them because they are in their home country, but you are not”. I then followed a training to become a language mediator for the African community in the reception centre.
February 2016: After seeing me playing football a lot in the parks, Luigi offered me the opportunity to play and coach a team of young mentally disabled athletes from Special Olympics. I expected the same reaction from them as I had experienced since my arrival. It was the opposite: they hugged me, without even knowing me. We did not communicate a lot orally, but we used to understand each other thanks to football and to and the emotions it brings. I could no longer perceive their disabilities but only their skills and determination. Our teammates were very close to each other, and we had the chance to represent Italy at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi in March 2019, which brought together 7,500 athletes from 200 countries.
Where I am from, people with disabilities have no perspective; they are totally excluded from the community. To see that on the other side of the world, they are the same people who are helping you to regain the confidence you have lost along your journey was incredible. I thought I was helping them, but, in reality, they were the ones who helped me to be socially integrated, who accepted me and who let me contribute to their well-being. It is on this idea of mutual enrichment that David Evangelista, the President of SOEA, created in 2016 the “United with Refugees” programme, which will obtain, in December 2020, the partnership of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
January 2021: While I was studying politics and international relations, David offered me the first position as a United with Refugees Programme Advisor. He especially took me seriously. This is an example that organisations fighting exclusion should follow. Don’t just let us participate in the projects as beneficiaries but let us also take the lead. This helps to change the mindset and the narrative around inclusion.
April 2021: The woman who shares my life is Italian and she gave me a son. It is true that this little boy has already a family history that is very heavy to bear. But everything I do is for him to see me as a fighter and not as a victim. Thanks to him, my roots are also in Italy. If I ever go back to Cameroon, I will try to convince those families who still hide their mentally disabled relatives of the benefits that sport, and proper supervision can have on their lives.
I am a traveller by nature, and I have no final destination. When I look back, I am proud of what I have achieved and grateful to the people who believed in me. As a young man forced into silence on the migratory routes, I now speak four languages and as many African dialects and travel the world to raise the voice of refugees thanks to sport, and its message of tolerance.