Britain's Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng backs refugee campaign
LONDON, United Kingdom, August 20 (UNHCR) - Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng is back in Britain to try and help his adopted country win a place in the 2012 London Olympics. But the Sudan-born basketball prodigy has also been taking time out to support the UN refugee agency's campaign to open up sports and education opportunities for millions of young refugees around the world.
Deng last week made his home debut for Britain in a friendly with Ireland and on Tuesday the lanky former refugee will try and help his country beat Slovakia in a European Championship qualifier. The team need to win promotion to the championship's top league if they are to be granted a place in the Olympics.
Although 22-year-old Deng has been living in the United States for a number of years, he was clearly happy to be back in the British capital. "London will always be my home. It's the city I grew up in and where my family lives today," he said during a visit to South Norwood in London's Croydon district, where the family settled after fleeing southern Sudan.
Taking part in a basketball camp for local youth at Norwood Recreational Ground, Deng reiterated his support for ninemillion.org, an internet-based campaign by UNHCR and its corporate partners to improve the lives of children in refugee camps through education and sports.
As a former refugee and a sports fan, Deng empathizes with children uprooted from their homes and can identify with the aims of the campaign as it prepares to enter a new fund-raising stage.
"More than nine million uprooted children have been identified by the UN refugee agency as among the world's most vulnerable people. Forced to flee their homes because of war, hatred and persecution, their situation is critical. I was one of them, and know what it is like," Deng said.
The athlete will be spreading his message at a major meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York next month. He will join UNHCR's launch of the next stage of ninemillion.org; an appeal for more than US$54 million to provide education for every refugee child by 2011.
Today he is using his fame to help young refugees get the opportunities he had. But Deng, who received British citizenship last year, revealed that basketball was not his first love as a young refugee. "It was football for me at first. I was tall, but I guess I was in denial, because I wanted to play football so bad," he said.
Deng only developed a passion for basketball once he was London, where he began playing for the Brixton Topcats. He used to shoot baskets before school, practise after school and sometimes even jogged from Croydon to the court in Brixton while wearing a weight vest.
When he was 14, Deng was sent across the Atlantic to Blair Academy in New Jersey, where his basketball skills started to attract a lot of attention. He joined the National Basketball Association in 2004 and this year won the NBA's sportsmanship award in a vote by his peers.
Reflecting on how the difficulties his family faced in Sudan and their time sheltering in Egypt had helped him succeed, Deng said: "Travelling so much has made me more mature. You had to adapt a lot. What we went through as a family really bonded us," he told UNHCR.
Sporting a ninemillion.org T-shirt as he spoke to aspiring basketball stars in South Norwood, Deng's words carried as much resonance for the youngsters in front of him as they do for refugee youth around the world:
"My life journey is really unbelievable. I'm really living this dream, just going through it. It is about believing in yourself. It is hard, but you've got to believe in yourself."
By Federica Cocco and Clare Graham in London, United Kingdom