GAEL’S FAITH IS SHIELD TO THE RACISTS

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By Chris Dunlavy

FOR kids of nine and ten, the idea of grow­ing up in the wartorn East African na­tion of Bu­rundi would seem unimag­in­able.

Yet, as Gael Bi­gi­r­i­mana tells his story to the wide-eyed young­sters of Al­der­man’s Green Pri­mary School in Coven­try, it is the sim­i­lar­i­ties that strike home.

“My days in Africa were like my days here,” says the Sky Blues mid­fielder.

“Go to school, come home, play foot­ball in the street un­til it was dark and then go to sleep. The only dif­fer­ence was that we played with­out shoes!”

Born in the Bu­run­dian cap­i­tal of Bujumbura, Bi­gi­r­i­mana ar­rived in the UK as an 11-year-old, re­unit­ing the fam­ily af­ter three ag­o­nis­ing years apart.

Sens­ing an es­ca­la­tion in the bloody civil war be­tween Hutu and Tutsi forces, his mother had made the dev­as­tat­ing de­ci­sion to leave her fam­ily be­hind in 2001, hop­ing to lay the foun­da­tions of a life for them in the UK.

Hum­ble

Hav­ing first fled to Uganada, Gael, along with his fa­ther, brother and two sis­ters, be­lat­edly joined her, es­cap­ing a con­flict that even­tu­ally left 300,000 dead.

Bi­gi­r­i­mana de­scribes his jour­ney from the streets of Bujumbura to the mid­field of New­cas­tle and Coven­try as a mir­a­cle, yet is hum­ble enough to dis­miss any ‘rags to riches’ cliche.

“The truth is, my life in Africa was good,” he says. “You’d al­ways hear ru­mours of war and trou­ble, but, to be hon­est, I was lucky.

“In Bu­rundi, like most of Africa, you have peo­ple who are wealthy and peo­ple who are poor and find life dif­fi­cult.

“My mum had a good job that paid well and we never knew any strug­gle. I was happy.

“It was tough in the sense that we were sep­a­rated by war. It was dif­fer­ent to the geno­cide in Rwanda. Not as bad.

“But the si­t­u­a­tion was get­tng worse and my par­ents saw an op­por­tu­nity to make a bet­ter life for the chil­dren. We spent three years apart which was hard, but we were a close, tight fam­ily so we sur­vived.”

It is this mes­sage – of fo­cussing on com­mon ground, rather than dif­fer­ence – that com­mit­ted Chris­tian Bi­gi­r­i­mana is press­ing home to­day. An en­thu­si­as­tic vol­un­teer for any kind of com­mu­nity work, the 23-year-old has joined Kick it Out’s ‘Next 20’ cam­paign against dis­crim­i­na­tion. Hav­ing al­ready spo­ken to in­mates at Durham Prison, he’s now tar­get­ing the younger gen­er­a­tion. “The kids are great,” he says. “I told them my story and they were ask­ing me if I’d ever ex­pe­ri­enced any racism and how I deal with it. It was good to hear how they think about the is­sues and I learned some­thing from them. “To be hon­est, I haven’t ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enced much racism in foot­ball. There were a cou­ple of mo­ments when I heard some­thing wrong, but, be­cause of my faith, these things bounce off. “If some­body says some­thing racist to me, I think ‘That’s their prob­lem’. It doesn’t af­fect who I am or the way I view my­self. And it’s not as if I’m be­ing kicked or punched, you know? They are just words.

“But, at the same time, I know it is a dif­fer­ent story for some peo­ple. And just be­cause I am not af­fected, that doesn’t make it OK. Right is right and wrong is wrong.

“Black, white, mixed race – it’s just skin. We all have a nose, two eyes and a heart.

African or English, we are all ba­si­cally the same. That is the mes­sage.”

Emer­gence

Hav­ing begged a trial at Coven­try and then come through the ranks, Bi­gi­r­i­mana’s blis­ter­ing emer­gence as a teenager yielded a £1m switch to New­cas­tle in 2012.

The move didn’t work out and he is now back at the Ri­coh. Does he re­gret leav­ing?

“No, no,” he in­sists. “Leav­ing was a good ex­pe­ri­ence and I learned a lot. But I was talk­ing to my wife and we both said that com­ing back here feels right.

“I can get back to play­ing at the level I was be­fore. I think it is all part of God’s plan for me.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

HOME LIFE: Bu­rundi ON A MIS­SION: Coven­try’s Gael Bi­gi­r­i­mana is work­ing for Kick It Out

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