Meet Melbourne’s Black Rhinos: Preventing crime through basketball

Updated 6 May 2017, 16:15 AEST

A few years after settling in Australia, Sudanese refugee Jamy Alex narrowly avoided imprisonment after committing a terrible crime — but basketball is helping to turn his life around.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon at a basketball court in Dandenong, about half an hour’s drive from Melbourne’s CBD, Jamy Alex, 29, is shooting hoops with his mates — relishing his freedom.

The Sudanese refugee has twice escaped peril.

In 2002, when he was 13-years-old, Jamy fled poverty and conflict in his home country to come to Australia.

Then, a few years after settling in the Victorian capital, he narrowly avoided imprisonment after committing a terrible crime.

“I was around 18-years-old at the time … just young and dumb,” he said.

Jamy’s parents stayed behind in Sudan. There wasn’t enough money for the entire family to relocate, so they sent Jamy with his uncle to Egypt — and then on to Australia after their visas were processed.

Adjusting to life in their new home was harder than they expected.

The pair had a falling out and Jamy ended up homeless, forced to either crash with friends or sleep rough outside.

“I felt like I belonged in the street, with my friends around supporting me, giving me what I want … I’m talking about alcohol and cigarettes and drugs and marijuana — stuff like that,” he told Background Briefing.

“A lot of things went wrong from there.”

From petty crime to a kidnapping

In order to buy food, drugs and alcohol, Jamy and his mates needed money.

Without jobs or family to support them, they began stealing — and their crimes gradually became more serious, culminating in a kidnapping.

“I was peer pressured into it,” Jamy said.

“I didn’t really want to do that sort of stuff, but if I don’t do it, who am I going to hang around with?

“So I just had to jump in there and I’m not happy about it.

“I certainly regret it right now. It’s not a good thing. I’m not proud of it, and that’s why I’m trying to turn things around to redeem myself.”

The kidnapping victim was an older African man in his 30s, who had just been shopping.

The incident landed Jamy in deep trouble.

He realised he’d made a huge mistake — so he reached out to a woman named Selba Luka, who runs an organisation called Afri-Aus Care, which helps to connect at-risk youth to support services.

“He had severe court issues, problems with his family, problems with his partner, at that time he was suicidal,” Selba recalled.

“He said, ‘I don’t know what I can do and I don’t have anyone who can help me.’ So we started an assessment, we addressed the drug and alcohol issues, and after that I started helping him go through the courts, and as I speak — he doesn’t have anything to do with the law.”

A sincere apology

Jamy wrote a letter to the victim, apologising sincerely.

He explained he was poor, hungry, and desperate. In the end, he received a two-year suspended sentence for the crime.

“[I was] very, very lucky. And I never looked back. I don’t want to do that again,” he said.

“With a two-year suspended sentence, if you do anything … you do the whole two years in jail.

“So I made sure I kept myself out of trouble, hang out with the right people — just out of the danger zone, if you know what I mean.”

Since then, Jamy has remained on the straight and narrow.

He volunteers at Afri-Aus Care, working closely with Selba.

“When he got better he said, ‘I think there are more people in our community that you can help.’ He started bringing more young people, I helped them,” Selba said.

One day, Jamy had an idea.

He suggested to Selba that they launch a basketball team to give disenfranchised youth in Dandenong, a suburb with high rates of unemployment and problem gambling, a sense of purpose and direction.

“Jamy is the founder,” Selba said, beaming with pride.

“Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to put the basketball team together.”

Reaching out to ‘endangered’ youth

The team has been dubbed the Black Rhinos — but Selba is determined that, unlike its namesake the West African black rhinoceros, this team of “endangered” young men won’t become extinct.

“We thought, these young people, if they don’t have enough help, there’ll be no hope for them,” she said.

“So we have to do something to keep them better — like the way people in Africa are trying to help the rhinos, the animals, not to go extinct.”

The Black Rhinos is still a fledgling club.

Around 40 men and women players, aged between 18 and 30, attend regular training sessions.

But it’s growing.

Jamy and Selba want to get children as young as eight involved as well.

Their motto is “crime prevention through basketball”.

“They are proud to belong to a group,” Selba said.

“They have a purpose and they look forward to doing something every fortnight and not just hanging around with people who are not doing something meaningful.”

From strength to strength

Once a criminal, Jamy has been elevated to the position of role model for dozens of younger African migrants and refugees who are struggling at school or can’t find work.

Basketball has become their saviour, he said, and the benefits are clear to see.

“They started actually being disciplined and they’re listening to us,” Jamy said.

“They’re turning up, that’s the important thing. And we want them to turn up more and more.”

The Black Rhinos are slowly building a profile.

Basketball Victoria and the Malawi Consulate have donated basketballs. Later this month, the club will be officially launched — and the invitation list includes magistrates, police, and politicians.

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