Barefoot to Boots (BTB) is an Australian-based private sector NGO that supports refugees living in camps and their neighbouring host communities.
It was first envisaged by two brothers and former South Sudanese refugees, professional footballer Awer Mabil and Lost Boy Awer Bul, following a return visit with 20 football shirts to Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya in June 2014.
Originating from this work in Kakuma, BTB is intent on resourcing other camps and host communities, as they strive to make their environments more sustainable, stimulating and accommodating for their residents. BTB returns to Kakuma at least one a year, and has visited camps in Uganda, Turkey and Lebanon.
Coupled with its humanitarian efforts is a drive to influence refugee policy at the highest levels of governments, to provide more support and help alleviate some of the pressures on those countries receiving displaced people and those NGOs providing on-the-ground assistance.
The pressures on all of these people and organisations are immense, with no signs of slowing. The latest UNHCR statistics reveal more than 65 million refugees and internally displaced people globally seeking a home through no fault of their own.
War, violence, climate change and general unrest have uprooted more men, women and children around the world than at any time in the seven-decade history of UNHCR. The crisis of forced displacement is staggering, as is the impact on the individuals caught up in it. But, there is also so much we can do to support refugees and to create the opportunities they deserve for their lives beyond the camps; particularly if we listen to the refugees themselves.
Differentiating BTB is the fact that it is advised by refugees in camps, through meaningful and trusted discussions during visits and through regular engagement throughout the year on social media. Despite popular beliefs, most refugees want to return to their places of origin once safety returns and, in the meantime, be fulfilled enough to live in the camps and communities that host them, often over neighbouring borders
Critically, BTB is further assisted and directed by NGOs that operate within camp and host community settings, and with which BTB has signed Memoranda of Understanding.
At the core of BTB will always be football, but emerging from its work over the past four years are health, education and gender equality initiatives that are truly making a difference.
In June 2014 brothers and former refugees Awer Mabil and Awer Bul returned to Kakuma, the refugee camp they grew up in. The brothers took with them 20 football shirts to give to some of the camp’s 170,000 inhabitants and returned determined to do more.
Football has played an incredible part in Awer Mabil’s life. He was born in Kakuma and came with his mother and sister to Australia as a ten-year old in 2006. He was noticed by football scouts playing in Adelaide’s northern suburbs and has gone on to become a professional, representing Australia and playing in the top leagues of Denmark and now Portugal.
Awer Bul fled South Sudan as a seven-year-old, arriving in Kakuma in 1992. He has extraordinary and harrowing stories of a journey that is familiar to so many of the world’s refugees. In Kakuma he became one of the renowned Lost Boys of South Sudan that was taken in by the United States in 2000, before settling in Adelaide, Australia.
Soon after the brother’s 2014 trip to Kakuma, Awer Mabil approached businessman Ian Smith at an Adelaide United training camp in Alice Springs and spoke of his dreams to create a sustainable and ongoing project, based around football, to help refugees. Together, the brothers and Ian officially established 'Barefoot to Boots'; symbolising the long walk of many refugees, their basic needs and the importance of football in the foundation’s objectives.
Barefoot to Boots was officially launched in April 2015 by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and received the full support of the Australian Government, particularly through the generosity of the High Commission in Nairobi.
BTB has donated over 2000 kg of football boots and uniforms, and it is now common to see teams wearing the shirts of Australian football teams playing each other in the Kakuma Premier League or the women’s Divas League. Given there are more than 400 teams of all ages, there is an unrelenting demand for equipment.
However, it obviously does not and cannot simply be about football. Subsequent visits have highlighted the need for educational materials, medical supplies and sanitary products as well as sport, art and musical equipment.
BTB continues to give both in-kind donations and new equipment purchased in the host countries to support these other areas of need.
Evidence of this are the incubators, ultrasounds, laptops and books already sent to address some of these needs, while 2017 sees the first of a regular consignment of containers being sent to camps containing similar items requested from refugees themselves.
BTB is funded by private sector and individual generosity; it does not seek government funds, but does work with Australian and African administrations to overcome some of the inevitable logistical challenges delivering goods and programs to remote areas where refugees often live.
It is registered with full charitable and direct gift recipient status, and has a leading Board of Directors, which features leading Australian corporate, sporting and philanthropic figures.
We develop our programs and donations to best match the needs of refugee camps with the particular focus or expertise of our corporate and personal supporters. In doing so we hope to build sustainable partnerships with our supporters and create the best outcomes for the camps.
We have close working relationships with UNHCR, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran World Federation and Kenya Red Cross. These trusted partnerships are a core component of the operations to ensure BTB meets the high standards of those same NGOs and delivers its resources and goods effectively in the best interests of refugees and donors alike.