“I was five when civil war broke out. I was at school when rebels attacked. I was the only one left, me and the principal. I can still remember it so clearly.”
Civil war on the Ivory Coast landed abruptly and brutally in Obed Karwhin’s life.
“My saving grace was my cousin, I saw her running through bullets to come and get me and she took me away. We stayed in our house for two days and waited for the gunfire to quieten down and then we ran away.”
They got as far as their money would take them and then had to walk to Guinea, about the distance from Sydney to Melbourne. At the border, they were confronted by more bloodshed before eventually finding safety. It took three years for Obed, his mother and his brother to secure refugee status and Australian visas. It was an opportunity that he has not taken for granted.
“There are hundreds of thousands of African kids that are starving and I am one of the very few that had the opportunity to come here,” he says.
“The way I see it is that God got me out of a situation where he’s given me a second chance at life. So when I came here, I didn’t go the way that my other friends went, I wanted a better life.”
A second saving grace came in the unlikely form of rugby league. The sport, which was completely alien to the refugee when he first arrived in western Sydney in 2005, helped him through a “tough” few years adjusting to his new life, he says.
He came to league through PCYC aged 14, where Africa United rugby league club founder and coach Steve Warwick became a mentor, a relationship that has lasted to this day.
“I had to work hard, I didn’t know much about the fundamentals and rules whatsoever. I never knew rugby league at all,” says Obed.
Its physicality appealed to him after witnessing the violence of his early childhood.
“It was a way of releasing my anger out in a safe way,” he says.
From the grass roots of Africa United, he joined Wests Tigers and now plays for Queensland’s Norths Devils. He hopes to eventually play for the NRL, but for now works from midnight to 8am in the telcomms industry before coaching kids as part of the NRL’s In League In Harmony program and then working on his own game.
He also gives back as much as he can. In the short term, that means encouraging kids of all ethnic backgrounds to have a go at rugby league as a way of helping them to stay out of trouble, learning from his own experience of sport as an outlet that kept him on the straight and narrow.
He says that stereotyping can be a problem in minority communities, with youths sometimes misguidedly “put into the category of gangsters”.
“I have the opportunity to make something of myself. Fortunately, I have a good family and role models. What I know is what I teach. I know the place I was in when I was young and people helped me, so I just feel like it’s my duty to give back to the community.”
But his larger goal is to help anyone in need. Taking rugby league to Africa - and perhaps overseeing an African nation’s entry into the World Cup - is one aim, but education, health and drinking water are also on his agenda. At home in Sydney, he hopes to open a centre for homeless people, driven in part by his childhood experience of being forced to run from his own home.
“I really want to go back. I want to help everyone, but if I can help save two lives, I will feel like I’ve done my job,” he says. “I don’t see myself as a leader, I just like to help people, regardless of who they are or where they come from.”