When Awer Mabil was a boy, growing up in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, he got word that a grassroots football clinic was being organised by a couple of Adelaide United players at a community club about 20 minutes’ drive from his house in Hillbank.

Mabil had never met a professional player before, but had been kicking a ball around for as long as he could remember, including in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where he lived until he was 10. He knew this could be his chance to impress them.

The problem? Nobody in his family was around to drive him there. His mum, Agot, was at work and his older siblings were elsewhere. 

However, Mabil would not give up. Undeterred, and burning with ambition, Mabil grabbed his scooter and rode the 45 minutes along suburban streets to the clinic by himself.

Josh Rose takes on Awer Mabil
Awer Mabil made his debut for Adelaide United at 17 years old, paving the way for more representation of African-Australians in football.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

“I was like, ‘Man, this is my opportunity to impress and get recognition by these professional guys,'” he laughs over Zoom from his hotel room in Prague.

“[I thought], if I train hard, then they will be like, ‘Hey, we should sign this guy!’ I thought that’s how it worked.

“When I went there, I saw Travis Dodd and Scott Jamieson taking the clinic. And Travis realised that I didn’t have a jacket. So he gave me his Adelaide United jacket. I still have a photo of it on my old computer.

“From that day on, that was a big motivator for me. At that time, I was playing for [Dodd’s] former club, St Augustine, which is an amateur team. That motivated me to also become a footballer.”

There are a number of formative moments like this that Mabil, now 27, is looking back on after being named the 2023 Young Australian Of The Year: the red Kakuma dirt where he first kicked around a “ball” made from rolled-up socks or plastic bags, the two-hour walk he’d make regularly to the nearest television to watch games, moving to Australia in 2006 and seeing the Socceroos first compete in the World Cup.

However, it’s that act of kindness from Dodd that stands out. Not only did it provide inspiration for Mabil to pursue professional football, debuting with Adelaide United in 2013, but it also laid the foundation of charity and “giving back” that has motivated his life off the field.

Born to South Sudanese parents, Mabil is the co-founder of humanitarian charity Barefoot To Boots, which aims to support refugees living in camps around the world by supplying them with, among other things, football gear.

He and his brother, Awer Bul, came up with the idea after returning to Kakuma as young men in 2014, taking with them a suitcase full of 20 spare training shirts and a few deflated footballs.

“I think I took three pairs of clothes just for me, and then the whole suitcase was filled with uniforms from Adelaide United,” he says.

“I gave those clothes and those footballs to the kids, because I knew that their balls were made out of plastic, and giving them this proper ball was something that was big for them, [even though] it’s something that is so small for us.

“Then I slowly realised when I was there that everyone was playing barefoot. I took some shoes there and gave them to one kid, and then it just clicked. I was playing barefooted, [but] was like, ‘Oh, I’m getting a lot of boots from Nike every year, so do my team-mates’.

“So I went back and asked for all the boots from my team-mates at the end of the season: ‘Give me all your boots, boys, and I will take them back.’ I also asked the whole A-League, and I got to collect all the jerseys and sent them. That’s how Barefoot To Boots was born.”

Since the charity was founded, Barefoot To Boots has donated more than 2,000kgs of football equipment to Kakuma, where there is now a men’s and women’s league containing more than 400 teams.

Non-governmental organisation Barefoot to Boots during a trip to Kakuma.
Barefoot To Boots uses football to tackle global inequality and promote “health, education and gender equality initiatives” in refugee camps.(Facebook: Barefoot to Boots)

It’s not just football gear that they need, though. As his charity grew, Mabil and his co-founders also turned their attention to schools and hospitals, donating a couple of incubators to a local clinic to help aid the survival of premature babies, alongside sanitary products for women and girls, ultrasound equipment, educational equipment such as laptops, art packs and musical instruments, as requested by the refugees themselves.

Now, with his newfound national platform, Mabil is hoping to take his charity to new heights.

His big-sky thinking includes wanting to create talent-identification pathways for refugee kids — who make up around 60 per cent of the Kakuma population, many of them without parents — to be noticed by football clubs around the world and provided trial opportunities.

He also wants to build an artificial football field there, to give aspiring footballers a flat, clean surface to train and play on instead of the rocky, uneven dirt he grew up on.

Spectators attend a soccer match in the Kakuma Premier League.
Awer Mabil hopes to create talent pipelines and build an artificial field in the refugee camp where he was born.(Facebook: Barefoot to Boots)

“Of course, football is the foundation but, around it, we’re able to go into areas and help schools, hospitals and gender rights,” he says. “Maybe, now, we’ve got a lot of attention towards that, but that doesn’t change what has been done and what has to be done to make sure we help people.

“I think [the award] is only motivation to continue that. Now we have more access, and people know more about it now and want to help, so that’s a really good part. It’s something that connects people from all over the world, but mainly in Australia, with the refugees.

“The founding part of this foundation was something special, because you didn’t have to really give money. It could just be a pair of shoes. And that helps you connect with somebody who’s less fortunate. We have many more ideas that we want to hopefully implement in the future to make the less fortunate more resourceful in being able to follow their dreams.”

It’s a day of mixed emotions for Mabil, though.

While he describes being named Young Australian Of The Year as “one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest moment, of my life”, January 26 also marks the four-year anniversary of the death of his sister, Bor, who was killed in a car crash while Mabil was in Socceroos camp.

However, just like that moment of kindness from Dodd, Mabil takes his memory of Bor with him wherever he goes, using it as motivation to keep doing as much as he can to make the world a better place.

Peter Kuereng with nephew and Socceroo Awer Mabil and niece Bor Mabil.
Awer Mabil with his uncle, Peter Kuereng (centre), and sister, Bor (right).(Supplied)

“She always called me ‘little bro’,” he says. “I think she’d be like, ‘Hey, little bro, you done alright, huh?’ That’s something she would say.

“My sister, she’s a special one. She’s unique. And I know she’s always with me … her energy is always with us.

“It was actually my little brother who called me today. He put on Instagram that my sister is proud. And [he] reminds me so much of my sister, so there’s some kind of way that they communicate — in a spiritual way, you could say — so she’s always there.

“I will continue to do her proud as long as we’re all here, so everything will be all right. We’ll continue to carry her name.”

Mabil represents not only a new generation of Australian footballers, but a new generation of Australians: a patchwork of migrant identities and stories that are stitched together to create one of the most diverse and multi-cultural nations in the world.

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That complexity is represented by a bespoke jersey recently designed for him that pays homage to his life story: a shirt that is made up of colours and patterns from Australia, South Sudan, Kakuma as well as Denmark, where he made a name for himself with FC Midtjylland.

However, there is one identity he is proudest to boast: that of a refugee. Now, with his Young Australian Of The Year award, Mabil is a living reminder of the contribution all refugees have made and continue to make not only to football, but to the country.

“When I say I represent refugees, for me, the title ‘refugee’ is just a name: As long as we’re born into this world, it’s all our home, no matter where you are. Everywhere is our home,” he says.

“Me, growing up and being born in a refugee camp, is something that I had the best times of my life. I had the best foundations I could’ve possible had. It taught me the value of sticking together, and also working hard for what you want.

“I do represent everybody that is good in this world, because I think, if you can all just help each other, one by one, this will be a better place for all of us.”