WHEN PARAIC Grogan first saw Umayna Kamboh it was on the rough soccer pitch in the shadow of the Housing Ministry towers at the Atherton Gardens estate in Fitzroy.
Two things struck Paraic. The first was that Umayna was one of the few girls to come down to the pitch in the four years he’d been running the Fitzroy Soccer Lions program there. The second was that she was a natural.
Untrained except for backyard kick to kick with her friends and cousins, Umayna was dribbling the ball on her knees and controlling it at her feet, slipping and sidestepping and laughing past the other kids. She was quick and smart and keen.
That was a season ago. Now 13 and the daughter of Somali and Pakistani refugees, Umayna has blossomed: she is a striker in one of the girl’s teams at the Yarra Jets Football Club in Clifton Hill, where Paraic arranged a scholarship membership for her, and has dreams of turning professional. And, says Paraic, it’s a dream that could come true.
“I’ve seen a lot of soccer players and I think she’s good enough to play at a high level,” says the enthusiastic Irishman. “I have to say she’s better than all but one of the boys of her age we have here. That’s why I’m excited for her.
“If she wasn’t that good, it’d be great that she’s playing as a social thing. But she’s really talented: she can kick with both feet, dribble the ball on her knees, she’s clean. In four years we’ve never had a girl get in and see out a season, so she’s our flag-bearer.”
The Newsboys’ Foundation has been funding the Fitzroy Soccer Lions, run by Jesuit Social Services, for the last three years. The program is for children and youths up to their late teens from the nearby housing estates. It provides qualified coaching to kids from Sudanese, Somali, Iraqi, Iranian, Vietnamese and other backgrounds, as well as facilitating pathways into mainstream soccer clubs and elite sporting schools for those, like Umayna, with real skills and commitment.
An integral aspect of the program is building the self-confidence of the young participants as well as building positive and respectful relationships between those involved and their community.
Paraic said he had surveyed players in the program and similar ones. “One teenager told me ‘We spend a lot of our time around here fighting. But when we play soccer we don’t fight.’ They learn to mix. Once you cross the white line everyone’s equal: you gain your respect out on the pitch.
“There’s no program without Newsboys’. If they weren’t doing this there’d be 40 kids who wouldn’t have that linkage to the clubs and learning that they can be part of society. If you took that away from them they’d end up in gangs.”
Ask Umayna where she’d be without the program and the tall, lithe teenager answers simply: “My backyard”. With it, though, she believes she can go places. She hopes one day to play in a League team, perhaps even for Australia. “It’s possible,” she affirms.
Umayna says she has loved soccer her whole life. “It’s like a passion,” she says. “Like a hobby but more. It’s just something I do, but it’s not to just keep me away from boredom, it makes me happy. It’s my big love.”
Her mother, Maymun Kamboh, says many in her community don’t appreciate girls playing sport, but she has backed Umayna all the way. “It’s been so good for her. She gets fit, it’s good for her exercise and it’s good for her to communicate with other cultures, children from other countries. It’s much, much more than the soccer.”