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From Kakuma to Australian rules football: Aliir Aliir's incredible journey

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Sports was a way to connect with other kids (3:48)

Sydney Swans player Aliir Aliir explains his journey from Kenyan refugee camp to a sporting career in Australian Rules Football. (3:48)

Kakuma is the most unlikely breeding ground for a professional Australian rules footballer.

The isolated town in the north-west corner of Kenya is the site of a UNHCR refugee camp that has housed tens of thousands of refugees that have fled civil war in Sudan since 1991.

Sydney Swans footballer Aliir Mayom Aliir was born in Kakuma in 1994 and spent the first nine years of his life there.

Football is a way of life for kids in Kakuma. But it is the world game, soccer, not the unique Australian brand, that Aliir played in the camp in Kenya.

"One of the memories that stuck with me was, we would get balloons and blow them up and then we would get clothes and wrap them around them until it was sort of like a soccer ball," Aliir tells ESPN.

"If you pump up a balloon, it's just going to pop straight away so we would wrap clothes around it. We would make probably five, and we would have little trees or whatever it is, or maybe a rock, and make that as a goal and we would play soccer until the sun goes down. If that ball pops there's always a reserve one there and we would play again. I guess just growing up with a big family, soccer was all we did. It was one of the only sports we knew in our country."

The Australian Football League (AFL) is one of the dominant sports in Australia. The last five-year television rights deal, signed in 2015, yielded more than $2.5 billion for the league and was the biggest TV rights deal in Australian sports' history. Although it is a domestic sport, the top players earn in excess of $1 million dollars a season.

Most footballers begin their careers playing organised modified matches as kids, on leafy suburban ovals or spacious rural grounds across the country. Aliir's captain at the Sydney Swans, Josh Kennedy, is one of those, from a long lineage of Australian football royalty. His father and grandfather are legendary playing and coaching figures in the professional game.

Occasionally a footballer emerges from remote indigenous communities, but Australian football is a way of life in those regions.

Only fellow Sudanese refugee Majak Daw -- who was drafted by North Melbourne in 2009 as a rookie and has struggled to establish himself in the Kangaroos' senior team -- has travelled Aliir's path.

Aliir's family left Kenya to seek a better life in Australia.

"It was a bit strange, coming from a camp, you didn't have buildings or a big city," Aliir said.

"Coming to Australia, especially the airport, we weren't used to seeing white people. Coming here I just felt like I was a different person and it was just strange seeing different things.

"We stayed in government housing with a fridge and things like that that we didn't have (in Kenya).

"You'd have little pots and that's where you would cook and there were so many things I'd never seen before.

"It was a bit strange. The buildings, just driving from the airport to the house, I was just amazed as a young kid. It was a very special moment for our family."

Aliir's family spent three months in Sydney before moving north to Newcastle, some 160km away from Australia's most populous city. Three years later the family moved again, further north, to Brisbane.

"That's where I did all my schooling and picked up basketball, footy (Australian Rules), and all these other sports," Aliir said.

"Coming here (to Australia) the only sport I knew was soccer. Personally, sport was a way I could connect with other kids. You come into a different country, you don't know English and you can't really communicate with people you haven't seen before. The only way we communicated and talked was through soccer. We didn't even say anything, we were kicking the ball, kicking goals, celebrating.

"I guess that's why I love sport so much because it allowed me to connect with a lot of people. It still does."

Aliir picked up an Australian football for the first time in his teenage years. It is the shape of a rugby ball but slightly heavier. The game is played on large ovals, the size of cricket grounds. Like the kids playing soccer in Kakuma, children in Australia will regularly kick the ball to each other in the street.

"A few mates were having a kick and invited me to come play for Aspley Hornets, which was the junior club around the corner from my house," Aliir said.

"I wasn't really a fan of it but I just wanted to try new things. I'd been doing that my whole life."

Aliir's time playing soccer, basketball, and rugby at school helped him transition into Australian football. There are aspects of all sports that translate into the Australian game. Aliir's first coach kept it very simple for him by playing him in the ruck - a position for the tallest players on each team, who aim to win the ball in the air and direct it to smaller, more nimble players.

"The coach told me to just tap the ball to your teammate, run forward and go kick a goal," Aliir said.

"They were pretty much my instructions and I found it a lot easier. And as you start to pick up the game more and watch more games live and things like that, you sort of expand your knowledge of the game."

Aliir's kicking skills also developed from practice and working with coaches before and after training.

Aliir's extraordinary natural athleticism made him a standout. He made the Queensland under-16 team and was selected in a World under-16 team for boys from multicultural backgrounds. That side was coached by two former AFL stars in Michael O'Loughlin and Chris Johnson.

O'Loughlin played 303 games for the Sydney Swans, won a premiership in 2005, and is a member of the Australian Football Hall of Fame. Johnson played 264 matches for Fitzroy and the Brisbane Lions and won three premierships.

Aliir admitted he did was not familiar with the achievements of either man when he played in that team due to the fact he knew so little about the sport.

"It probably wasn't until I got home that I did my research and ever since then I became a Swans supporter," Aliir said.

That experience was also extraordinary in that he played with a boy from Perth who turned out to be a long-lost cousin, Rueben. Aliir's mother Zainab and Rueben's mother were sisters who were separated when fleeing the war in Sudan.

The chance meeting prompted Aliir and his family to move to Perth. It was there where Aliir's football flourished, playing for East Fremantle's under-18 team under Mark Foster, who turned Aliir into an intercept defender.

Aliir represented Western Australia at the under-18 national championships in 2013 and was drafted to the Sydney Swans later that year.

Aliir said it was a great moment of joy for his mother when he was selected by the Sydney Swans.

"My father passed away in a car accident (when I was young)," Aliir said. "The moment I got drafted, mum was in tears. She was just talking to me and said 'this is always what your dad talked about'.

"It's one of those things that will stay close to me."

Aliir spent 2014 and 2015 developing on the Swans' list with his mother calling him from Perth nearly every day to check in.

He made his AFL debut in 2016 against the Brisbane Lions in Brisbane.

"It was a very special moment," Aliir said.

"To have mum, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles there was very special."

He went on to play 13 games in 2016 and was a rising star in the Swans' side until he suffered a knee injury in the preliminary final, which forced him to miss the grand final against the Western Bulldogs.

Missing a chance to play on the biggest stage of all, at the MCG in front of 100,000 screaming fans, because of injury is often a heartbreaking experience for AFL players. But Aliir took it in his stride.

"I feel like I am a very resilient person and coming from where I've come from you can't really control other things," Aliir said.

He learnt that trait from his mother: "She's a very strong woman.

"To be able to do the things she's done, look after a big family by herself, I probably get a lot of that from her. It just carries you on. Every time you're at footy training and it's not going well or you're playing bad and things like that, you sort of click and just get back in the moment and not worry too much about what you can't control."

Aliir has played just three games in 2017. A combination of poor form, injury and a club-imposed sanction, after he overslept and missed a training session, have been the reasons but he is edging closer to a return to AFL ranks.

He continues to be a role model for young kids as an AFL multicultural ambassador.

"Early on it was hard to accept," Aliir said.

"I've never seen myself as a role model or anything like that. But I've come to realise I'm in a great position to be able to help the younger guys coming through, especially the multicultural kids. Just going out to schools, young kids come up to you and are just happy to see you and I can help them with a word of encouragement whether they want to play sport or be lawyers or whatever it is, I just encourage them to do that."

Aliir is an example of what is possible -- A refugee from Africa who has become a recognisable name in one of Australia's biggest professional sports. Such is his talent, he could have easily followed the path of his cousin Thon Maker, who was drafted to the NBA in 2016.

He dreamed of playing soccer as a kid in Kakuma but has forged a career playing a sport he never knew existed. His advice for any youngster is simple.

"Just don't hold yourself to whatever sport you're playing," Aliir said.

"Personally, the only sport I knew was soccer and you can't just fall in love with one sport.

"You've got to be able to try different things. That's what I did. I guess for a young kid that's out there that wants to play soccer or wants to be the next Didier Drogba or whatever, yeah, strive for that.

"But then there's other sports around the world that could take you on another journey. It would definitely be great to see another kid from Kakuma or from Spain or wherever to be able to come over to Australia and play this great game."