Alphonso Davies is on course to be one of football’s biggest stars of the decade. At 20, the Canada international is already a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich and rated as one of the best defenders in the world, but it is his backstory, as a child born in a refugee camp to parents who fled from war in Liberia, which makes his journey to the top so remarkable.
Davies spent the first five years of his life as a refugee in Ghana before being re-settled with his family in Edmonton, Canada, where he learned to play football with Free Footie, an organisation which provided facilities, equipment and transport for children unable to afford kit to play.
But by the age of 17, Davies had earned a move to Bayern after making the breakthrough with the Vancouver Whitecaps becoming, at 16, the second-youngest player to appear in MLS after Freddy Adu.
Now, having become a global star with Bayern, Davies was appointed on Wednesday as a Global Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, saying: “I want people to know about the importance of helping refugees, wherever they are, in camps or cities, as they need our support to survive, but also access to education and sports, so they can fulfil their potential and truly thrive.”
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Davies “personifies the power of sport,” with the player determined to use his story to inspire those enduring the same difficulties he experienced as a child, but also lead the way in helping to eradicate the stigma felt by many refugees.
ESPN caught up with Davies in a round-table Zoom interview arranged by UNHCR to discuss his new role, in which he spoke candidly about his journey from troubled beginnings to being able to use his platform as a globally-recognised footballer to shine a light on the difficulties still being experienced by refugees across the world.
Q. What was the message from your parents about your start in life?
A. From what my parents told me, it was a tough road. It wasn’t easy for them to leave a war-torn country in Liberia and then go to a refugee camp. There were struggles to find food, find water, and then having a kid as well, but they fought through it. They were happy.
Q. It wasn’t an easy choice for your parents, but an important one?
A. The story my dad told is how it was during the war in Liberia. You knew there were only two opportunities: you either become part of the war or try to get out. I’m happy they chose to get out because my parents had no intention of carrying guns, shooting guns. That’s not who they are. Everything in the refugee camp was a battle, it wasn’t easy, but they were alive. I can just visualise the smile on their faces knowing we were going to have a better life once we got accepted in the resettlement program to go to Canada. They were so excited, it was an amazing relief.
Q. How do you balance being an activist with football?
A. I believe my personal story can help make a difference in people’s lives. It makes me work harder and I’ll never forget where I come from. Being a refugee is part of my story and I’m happy to share everything about it. It motivates me each and every day to be who I am, to reach out to people, to tell them that there’s hope and help others be aware of what the situation is. I want to be a role model to other refugees as well. For them to look at me and see there’s hope. To let them know if we believe in ourselves, we can make it. I really want to raise awareness and open people’s eyes to the situation that is going on around the world.
Q. There are many refugee crises ongoing right now, in countries such as Syria, Myanmar and DR Congo, so how can you use your experiences to inspire children in those situations?
A. I want use my story to motivate people, to give them a little bit of hope that they can be what they want to be. There are lot of situations going on around the world, in a lot of countries, which are sad. I want to share my story, give my support and obviously make people aware of these situations as well. That’s what I want to use my platform for. That’s what I want to do and will do.
Q. Can you help remove the stigma around refugees? There remains a lot of racism and negativity towards them.
A. It’s really important. Even though I’m a footballer, I still encounter racism. And even when it’s not about the colour of your skin, you are looked at differently when you have been resettled. It’s a tough situation to be in. We have to raise awareness, making sure people understand that we’re all human beings, we’re all in this world together and we should have respect and love for one another. But, I mean, it’s tough stuff. There’s people out there that really don’t care. They say whatever they want to say and those are the people that we’re trying to change, trying to open their eyes to see that no matter where you come from, we can help each other as much as possible.
Q. How did growing up in Canada help shape your football career?
A. When I moved to Canada, football helped me make friends. Football helped me express myself. Football did a lot for me. Playing the game in Canada — it was amazing. That’s where I made a lot of friends. That’s where I became myself. It’s amazing, that feeling you have playing each and every day with your friends. I was a shy guy in school, but once I started playing football that’s when I started making more and more friends. It shows you who you are as well. I mean, football is not just running around playing a game. It’s a lot of other factors involved. Joining the Whitecaps, it was when I was with my team Edmonton Strikers, we went to Vancouver for a showcase and I think one of the coaches, or one of the scouts, saw me and contacted my coach at the time and told them they wanted me to come in for a chat.
So I went down, obviously. They liked what they saw and my mom wasn’t really too fond of the situation — going to Vancouver myself at 14 years of age. For my parents, schooling is a big one for them, they wanted me to have a strong education to be able to have something to fall back on. And I’m glad it all worked out. I promised my parents that I’d stay the same, I wouldn’t change so they let me go. Everything worked out well at the end.
Q. You are now the most recognisable Canadian athlete, fans buy Bayern Munich shirts with your name on, so how important is it to use your voice and profile?
A. I am just using my platform to raise awareness of situations going on around the world. I am very grateful that people are wearing my jersey, looking up to me. It’s amazing. Even now, I still look up to big athletes and listen to what they say, so I’m happy that I can use my platform and my voice to motivate young people raise awareness for situation around the world.
Q. How do you discuss your role with teammates or opponents? Do you try to convince other players to follow your lead?
A. There are a lot of other people there doing the same as me. For me, talking to my teammates, I think they know I’m now an UNHCR ambassador, but I haven’t had the chance to talk to them yet. I’m still fairly new to it, but the opportunities will come where I can sit down with them, talk to them and share opinions about the situation.
Q. Does your refugee past have an influence on your career?
A. Yeah, looking back on my story, for me it is my story and people see it as motivation. I believe my story can push others, young refugees or young footballers, to make it. All I want to do is give them hope and excitement to say that, if he can do it, I can do it. That’s the message I want to give out to them. For me, every time I look back on my story, it helps me work harder every day. I know where I came from and where I am now and that is the motivation that I have in me.
Q. You haven’t forgotten your roots, but who helps keep your feet on the ground?
A. I have quite a small circle around me and everyone within that circle wants the best for me. I think the main ones are my family — knowing their story, where we came from, that keeps my feet on the ground. My mom always tells me to be a good boy, as she calls it. My friends too, they help me keep grounded, and my manager too — he just tells me to remember where I came from. The support around me is amazing and everyone has their best interest in mind for me.
Q. Do you have any plans to go back to Ghana?
A: I haven’t been back since I left, but that’s definitely on my list. I want to go back to see where I grew up, where my family grew up and where I was for the first five years of my life. I’m excited that I’ll be getting the chance to go back, although it’s not possible right now with everything that is going on (with the COVID-19 pandemic). But in the future, I would love to go back and see the country.
Q. Finally, what is your message to all refugees?
A. I just want to say we support you and we’re here. I am excited to join the programme to help spread the word and hopefully you guys can take my story as motivation in your own life. I am happy to be working with the UNHCR and excited to get things started.