Basketball bonus lets young refugees shoot hoops of hope

News Stories, 1 September 2005

© UNHCR/K.Kaparo
School girls getting ready to try out their new gift at Central Montford Primary School in Iowara, Papua New Guinea.

EAST AWIN, Papua New Guinea, Sept 1 (UNHCR) While a number of boards and hoops are dotted around the various schools in the refugee settlements of East Awin in Papua New Guinea's remote Western province, it's been many years since a real basketball has been seen in the area.

So when UNHCR's Kasongo Kaporo walked into the Iowara Central School compound recently to deliver new basketballs donated by the Fédération Internationale de Basketball (FIBA), pupils could hardly contain their excitement.

The students had been improvising with the cheaper and more accessible volleyballs. So when the girls at Iowara Central took the initiative to organise themselves into teams to try out the real thing, they already knew the basic rules of the game.

"On the basketball ground, the girls were the first to start and I was amazed by the way they organised so quickly into teams of five players each, and started playing a kind of match between both teams," said Kaparo.

Word of the new basketballs spread very quickly among the various refugee settlements.

"Young people, girls and boys, started to come to our guest house in order to meet me," Kaparo said. By the end of the day, he reports there was clear consensus throughout the settlements that these were the best quality basketballs ever used in East Awin.

Fifty balls donated by FIBA were distributed to each of the five schools, the 12 refugee settlements, and three youth associations in East Awin. Balls were also given to three settlements among the local population and to a group of refugee students currently studying in the town of Kiunga.

Sport is an important activity for young refugees, and a great rallying activity for the three youth associations that are running programmes to raise awareness on drug addiction and HIV/AIDS.

"Sport gives them the best occasion to gather many young people together at the same place to discuss other matters concerning young refugees," Kaparo said.

The youth associations, along with the schools and other recipients of the donated balls, expressed their thanks to FIBA and UNHCR for the gifts.

UNHCR's Papua New Guinea Representative, Johann Siffointe, also thanked FIBA for the gift and said the distribution of basketballs and other team sports equipment helped facilitate the integration of refugees into their local community through regular inter-village sporting competitions.

"The organisation of teams and tournaments helps facilitate dialogue between the different refugee settlements and the local villages," said Siffointe.

The following day, when Kaparo went to the furthest settlement, Kuiu, to distribute the new balls, a group of young boys and girls had already gathered to wait. Papua New Guinea's heavy tropical rains weren't enough to dampen enthusiasm for an impromptu game.

"When I started giving the balls out, many were screaming for joy, jumping, laughing and by the time we had finished pumping air into the last ball, many young refugees were already on the basketball ground in the rain," Kaparo said. "In fact, it rained that whole day in East Awin, but with the basketballs in their hands, the weather didn't matter."

FIBA is an independent non-profit association formed by 212 national basketball federations throughout the world. The Geneva-based organisation, recognised by the International Olympic Committee as the sole competent authority in basketball, sets the official basketball rules, and governs all international competitions and the appointment of referees.

© UNHCR/K.Kaparo
Basketball grounds are not uncommon in East Awin, but until the FIBA donation, students had been playing basketball with the cheaper and more accessible volleyball.

UNHCR's relationship with FIBA dates back to 1995 when the association funded the purchase of balls and backboards in Croatia. This year, FIBA is funding the construction of basketball courts, boards and hoops produced by local craftsmen in refugee camps in Tanzania and Uganda. FIBA is also donating basketballs to returned refugees in East Timor.

In 1987, the Papua New Guinea government designated East Awin as the settlement area for refugees from Indonesia's Papua province. About 2,500 refugees live there, including 1,200 children who were born in East Awin.

By Ariane Rummery
UNHCR Regional Office, Canberra, Australia