When Gerald Mballe, 20-years-old, escaped his homeland for a better life, he never thought he would be representing his adopted nation at a global sporting event four years later.
This week, Mballe has been in the UAE playing for the Special Olympics Italy Football 7-a-side team as a Unified Partner at Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.
Back in October 2014, a teenage Mballe fled the place he called home after war quickly escalated. His journey saw him cross the borders of Niger, Libya and Algeria before he was rescued on a boat by Italian authorities on 1 November 2015 – more than a year after he first set off.
Despite a tough start to life as a refugee in Italy, Mballe is now proud to call the country his home and resides in Torino. He even speaks the language and is happy to give back to the community by working on the Special Olympics Italy program.
“My journey to Italy was very tough as I travelled unsecured and it was not easy. We didn’t know where we were going but we kept on moving in order to secure a better life,” he said.
“In Italy, life was tough to begin with as I faced discrimination, but I didn’t let it get to me as life is all about challenges and this was one of them.
“I was fortunate to have someone who educated me at the camp, his name was Luigi and he asked whether I would be happy to train a group of footballers with intellectual disabilities. I didn’t know much about them other than that they had intellectual disabilities. I was impressed by them as they had such sheer determination and from that moment I wanted to be a part of the Special Olympics program.”
When he is not studying, he spends most of his time playing with the Special Olympics athletes. He has already won gold with the national team, but whether they win or lose, Mballe says everyone can go home with their heads held high and praised the impact of Special Olympics in promoting inclusion.
“We are living in the 21st century but still today people are discriminating against people with intellectual disabilities,” said Mballe.
“All people of determination are focused and they have the power and determination to do anything they want to do. I have seen it in my own eyes. This World Games will help spread the message of inclusion and it will inspire the athletes so they know they can do things by themselves.
“There is nothing like Special Olympics. It is a honour to be a part of the movement and memories of being a part of it are something I’ll cherish for a long time.”
The Special Olympics Italy male 7-a-side football team is one of a number of Special Olympics Unified Teams participating in the World Games. Around 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports. The program aims to break down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities by having people with and without intellectual disabilities playing alongside each other on the same team.