Majok's extraordinary journey from refugee camp to national basketball team

Ater Majok's family fled Sudan after political and religious conflict broke out. He spent the next eight years in a refugee camp in Cairo and now earns his living playing basketball for Lebanon.

Lebanon's Ater Majok (3-Red) in action during the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers match between India and Lebanon at Sree Kanteerava Indoor Stadium in Bengaluru on Monday.   -  K. Murali Kumar

Ater Majok does not wish to dwell on the past. “Let bygones be bygones,” he says. “There are people who have gone through worse things. There are a lot of people that are not even here today. So I don't really hold it against anybody or hold it against life. You just have to keep moving and smiling.”

It is fair to say that Majok has been through a lot. His journey from Sudan to the Lebanese national basketball team, for whom he starred at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Monday, has been an extraordinary one. At the age of five, Majok's Christian family fled Sudan after political and religious conflict broke out.

"It is pretty hard for a kid who was born into a good family and lifestyle. Getting everything taken away was tough. Everything in life is a lesson. What does not kill you makes you stronger."

 

He spent the next eight years in a refugee camp in Cairo. Majok does not discuss it but at one point he was attacked, having his ear cut by a knife, while another time he was slashed in the thigh. His father was jailed multiple times on returning to Sudan while his former university coach has spoken of his family once being paid a visit by people toting machine guns.

“It is pretty hard for a kid who was born into a good family and lifestyle,” he says. “Getting everything taken away was tough. Everything in life is a lesson. What does not kill you makes you stronger.”

In 2000, Majok's family was granted asylum in Australia, where they still live. It is there that he was introduced to basketball. Tall and athletic, he quickly made a mark. Aged 21, Majok – who by then had grown to 6'10” – enrolled in the University of Connecticut in the United States.

A spell at professional club Homenetmen Beirut in the Lebanese league culminated in him acquiring citizenship there and turning out for the country.

“I come from nothing, so I have nothing to lose.”                                                                                                                                       

 

On Monday, Majok was a hit with the crowds at the Kanteerava stadium, going by the scramble for selfies afterwards. He went toe to toe with Satnam Singh and came out on top, blocking shots at one end and pulling off a couple of thunderous dunks at the other. He was strong and aggressive, as one would expect of a center, but also quick across the court and eager to shoot from the outside.

His life has shaped his on-court personality, Majok admits. “Off the court, I'm different, very quiet and calm, but on the court I will try to dominate any other player. My time [in the refugee camp] helped me become tough, mentally. It taught me to keep fighting, no matter what.”
Majok is simply grateful that he is able to play basketball for a living. “It has been a crazy journey,” he says. “I come from nothing, so I have nothing to lose.”