© Canada Soccer/Max Bell
In honour of World Refugee Day on June 20th, Global Heroes and soccer fan Hermon Desbele chat with UNHCR Global Goodwill Ambassador Alphonso Davies about making sports history, his family’s experiences as refugees, and how to become a sports star.
At just 20 years old, Alphonso Davies is set to make sports history.
Known for his incredible technique on the field, Davies has already made his mark on the soccer pitch as the youngest senior international debutant and goalscorer for the senior men’s national team.
Now, the Canadian international and FC Bayern Munich player has been appointed as the newest Global Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency—the first footballer and Canadian to do so.
Born in a refugee camp in Ghana to Liberian parents who fled the civil war in their home country, Davies knows first-hand what it means to be a refugee. He also knows that as an athlete, he has the power to inspire a new generation of Canadian soccer fans, like 18-year-old Hermon Desbele.
Hermon and his family fled Eritrea and ended up in western Africa’s Niger before finally getting the opportunity to resettle in Canada. Like Davies, they were refugees welcomed into Canada, a world leader in refugee resettlement, so that they could rebuild their lives in safety.
UNHCR met Hermon in Niger just before he and his family left for Canada and discovered he loves Alphonso Davies. In honour of World Refugee Day, Global Heroes (GH) invited Hermon to contribute questions for this interview so he could hear directly from someone who is a citizen in the country Hermon now calls home.
GH: Earlier this year, you became the first footballer and first Canadian to be appointed as a Global Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. Can you tell us your story and how that led to your work with UNHCR?
AD: My parents fled Liberia to Ghana to escape war. I was born in a refugee camp there. When I was five years old, my parents got an opportunity that changed our lives: we resettled in Canada. We first arrived in Windsor before moving to Edmonton. I started playing soccer in Edmonton and loved the sport. When I was 14, I was good enough to play at a higher level and moved to Vancouver to join the Whitecaps.
When I became a professional, people heard my story. Some contacted me on social media and told me I was a role model for them. I am proud to share my story and hope to inspire young kids. Just before the pandemic hit, I started working with UNHCR and learning about the work they do for refugees around the world—my own family was helped by UNHCR.
In March 2021, I was announced as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador—it’s one of my proudest achievements!
HERMON: What was it like to resettle from Ghana to Canada and grow up in a country and culture that are so different from the one your parents grew up in?
AD: I don’t remember much from when we first arrived. When I was young, my parents didn’t talk much about the past. They only wanted us to have a safe place to grow up and be whatever we wanted to be.
I remember starting school when I was about six years old and seeing snow for the first time. One morning I woke up and saw the ground outside was completely white. I went out in just a T-shirt and shorts; it was freezing! School was not super easy for me. I spoke broken English, so I had to learn how to speak Canadian English. But I always felt comfortable playing sports—I played basketball, track and field, but I loved soccer most! Playing sports helped me make friends easily. You don’t have to be a star athlete. Just following sports can help you make friends. Growing up, I watched soccer with my dad. I had lots of fun arguments with the other kids about whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo was the better player.
My parents are really happy for me. When I tell them exciting news, like when I got the contract to play with Bayern Munich, my mom smiles a big smile—as big as mine.
GH: According to the UNHCR, approximately 3.7 million refugee children are out of school. This past February, you helped the Canadian Government launch the “Together for Learning” campaign. Can you tell us more about that campaign and why it holds so much significance to you?
AD: This campaign aims to make sure refugee children and children from the communities that host them can go to schools that are safe and allow all children, boys and girls alike, a place to be their best. The fact that so many refugee kids are out of school makes me sad, and I want to help end the stigma and the negative attitude around refugees. We are all human beings and deserve to be treated equally and fairly no matter our background, skin colour, or religion.
As an athlete, I have a platform, and I want to use it to spread this message.
GH: In addition to the “Together for Learning” campaign, you’ve also been a part of a Livestream tournament for refugees and, most recently, a video with football community 433, which connects you to three young refugees in Liberia, Canada, and Germany. Can you tell us more about your collaboration with this soccer community?
AD: When the pandemic started, I teamed up with footballer Asmir Begovic to raise money to help refugees. The funds we raised during the livestream helped UNHCR provide soap and clean water. Imagine how hard it is to socially distance in a refugee camp, where everything is already very cramped!
It was amazing to connect to those kids. They all wanted to be exactly like me. But I was happy they had backup plans if they don’t make it as soccer players. Rachelle in Liberia intends to be a nurse, Nouri wants to work in a pharmacy, and Jacob is still figuring out what he wants to do.
HERMON: Do you have advice for people like me who love playing soccer? How can I get better? What advice do you have for a young person like me?
AD: Just play your game. When you go onto the field, always give 100 percent. Here are my tips for getting stronger and improving your game: Make sure to always play with a smile on your face. If you’re having fun, it will make it easier to improve because you’ll want to.
Make sure to train on your own time and not just with your team. Go to a field or find some space in or around your home. Start juggling and working on your touches as much as you can. Touch the ball as many times as possible when you’re training alone.
Watch football on TV. It will help you understand the game better, so it is always good to watch games closely. Especially players who play in the position you play.
When you’re a professional, you also have to do more than play soccer. Sometimes you have to go far from home and learn new languages. I am learning German right now. It’s not easy. You also need to stay true to yourself. I promised my mom when I left for Vancouver that I would continue to be a good person. It’s important to respect people and to stay humble.
Donate at unhcr.org/alphonso-davies