As a South Sudanese former refugee, AFL player Akec Makur Chuot is a passionate advocate for displaced people. Not only is the 29-year-old a successful role model on the field, but she has also recently become an Ambassador for Australia for UNHCR, as well as supporting several youth organisations. Just the day before our interview, she had taken part in a Zoom call with young African players on a basketball team.

“I just spoke to them about my story and why I made the decision to get vaccinated for COVID-19, and there was a medical doctor present, too, to help give them all the information they needed,” she says. “Being a role model and being involved in these programs is crucial. I remember when I was growing up, if someone like me came to an event, it was really important.”

It helps that Akec is such a warm and engaging conversationalist, with a ready smile. When she talks about her incredible journey – from Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to half-back for Richmond in the Women’s AFL – her stories are punctuated with humour (and often, food). Her clearest memory of nursery school in the camp is the BP-5 biscuits each child received; this is a high-calorie, vitamin-fortified biscuit given to malnourished children, but Akec remembers it simply as a “yummy snack after school”. Similarly, she and her siblings would go straight to their mum’s restaurant after school in Kakuma “to help her with cooking and also – let’s be honest – to eat”.

Akec Makur Chuot with her mother

Akec and her mum fled the civil war in Sudan

Kakuma was Akec’s home until age 12. Her father died in the year that Akec was born, and her mum fled the civil war in Sudan as a single parent of six. In Kakuma, the family reconnected with other relatives and Akec’s mum, like many refugees, set up a business in the camp to support her children, as well as starting the application process for sponsorship to Australia.

“It took nine years for us to receive approval to come here,” Akec says. “Mum raised all of us by herself and ran a business, and there was not a day we went without food. I was so excited for her when we got our visas.”

In Perth, Akec – who had spent years watching her older brothers play soccer – discovered that she, too, could play. “My brother was really good – they used to call him Thierry Henry,” she laughs. “But it wasn’t until I came to Australia that I signed up for an under-12s club, and went from there.” At 15, she travelled to China to play in the All Australian Girls competition against international teams, and visited the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing.

“That’s when I thought I’d love to do this professionally,” she says. But there were few opportunities for female soccer players in Australia, so Akec started playing AFL, and was drafted first to Fremantle and then to Richmond. Playing AFL in sports-mad Melbourne has given her a platform to talk about the issues she really cares for, particularly around refugee inclusion.

Akec with Cricket legend Ian Chappell, Australian soccer player Golgol Mebrahtu, and Australia for UNHCR National Director Naomi Steer at the annual World Refugee Day luncheon

Akec with Cricket legend Ian Chappell, Australian soccer player Golgol Mebrahtu, and Australia for UNHCR National Director Naomi Steer at the annual World Refugee Day luncheon

“Migrants and refugees work hard and contribute to our community, and they deserve to be respected,” she says. “They deserve to live in an inclusive environment where they feel welcome. But there are still communities that feel isolated here. I know some aunties, uncles who feel it would be better for them to go home rather than feel unwelcome and excluded. And that makes me feel really sad.

“Because it’s hard enough to flee your home and come to a country where you know no one, and then feel unwelcome.”

Part of the problem, Akec believes, is the lack of representation in mainstream media. Yes, there are role models in sport, she says, but when you turn on the TV in the morning, “you see the same faces. I’d love to get up and see Chinese people being represented, or Africans, you know. The only way that can happen is by going in and interrupting those conversations.” She’d love to go into media one day, she adds.

In the meantime, Akec will continue her advocacy work for refugees here and in Kakuma. “I want to be a voice for people back in Kakuma, because there is so much hope there – people have a lot of hope and a lot of talent, and dreams. It’s important that they’re provided with the resources to make those dreams happen.”

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