Christ Wamba fled Congo Brazzaville in 2015 and arrived at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos a few months later. There, he had only one goal: to become a professional basketball player. His gamble paid off: today he is a member of Aris Thessaloniki, a renowned Greek basketball club. Leslie Carretero reports.
“I wasn’t planning to stay in Greece because I don’t speak the language, but I feel good here,” said Christ Wamba, who is not yet 18 but already has lived an extraordinary life.
Wamba’s fairy tale began in early 2018 — after he had spent several weeks in the immense refugee camp of Moria on the island of Lesbos. “Greek friends told me to sign up on Athlenda,” a website described as the LinkedIn for athletes, he told InfoMigrants. “So I did. I posted videos of myself playing basketball”.
His initiative paid off. By chance, a former international player, Lazaros Papadopoulos, saw Wamba’s videos and got in touch. “He talked about my performance with the coach of Aris, and the coach decided to take me,” Wamba said, adding that he is “delighted” with his new life.
In Moria, “it was very hard, I thought about committing suicide”
Just a few months before he was discovered, stuck in Moria, Wamba thought about ending it all. “Life there was too hard. I wasn’t playing basketball. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of there. I was like a caged animal,” said the 6-foot-7 athlete. “The camp was packed, there were a lot of people. We didn’t have enough room to sleep, sometimes I slept outside on the ground without a blanket. To eat, we had to wait in line for two or three hours in the blazing sun. I wanted to cry,” he recalled.
The Moria refugee camp, deemed “the shame of Europe” by NGOs, is infamous for the inhuman living conditions migrants endure there: overpopulation, violence, poor sanitation.
Today, Wamba’s life is very different. Far from the tents and overcrowded containers, he lives in an apartment provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He earns money thanks to his team salary and trains with Aris Thessaloniki every day.
Even his private life has taken a new turn. For the past several months he has been dating a young Greek student whom he met through the basketball club.
In Lesbos, ‘a 50-kilometer round trip’ to play basketball
Wamba said he survived because of basketball. During the months he spent in Moria, he would run around the camp every night to stay in shape. When the camp stopped locking up residents and started letting them go in and out, Wamba’s only thought was to find a basketball court. “I did a 50-kilometer round trip every day, running to Mytilene [the main city on Lesbos] where there was a court. I quickly started playing with the locals, some of whom had relatives who worked for UNHCR in Moria,” he said.
He had a stroke of luck when UNHCR noticed his talent and the organization took him under its wing, first finding him an apartment in Mytilene and, later, helping him relocate to Thessaloniki on the mainland.
‘In Congo, I preferred to buy a ball rather than food’
Wamba only 15 years old in 2015, when he fled his country, convinced that he had to try his luck in Europe. “In Congo-Brazza, I always had my basketball with me. I played every day, every hour. I took it to school. My family didn’t have a lot of money but I preferred to buy a ball rather than food,” Wamba recounted. “I was on the basketball team at my high school and my coach kept telling me that I had the ability to go far, but in the Congo, basketball isn’t played very much.”
In an attempt to make his basketball dreams come true, Wamba took off from Congo with a visa for Turkey in his pocket and his precious basketball deflated and placed carefully in his backpack. From Izmir, a coastal city in Turkey, he boarded a makeshift boat with 64 other passengers. “We got lost at sea and the boat ran out of fuel. The boat started taking on water so the smugglers forced us to throw out our belongings,” he said. “I was forced to get rid of my basketball.” After four anxious hours, the Hellenic Coast Guard finally came to rescue them.
His life has radically changed since then but he still faces a major challenge: to regularize his legal situation. His asylum application in Greece was rejected. He appealed the decision and is waiting for an answer. “The basketball player Lazaros Papadopoulos, who has become my mentor, has offered to adopt me,” he said. “That way, I wouldn’t have to worry about papers and I would be able to play official games with the team.”
But Wamba has an even bigger dream: to launch his career and one day join the NBA. “Lazaros is convinced that I will get there,” he said. “I’d love to meet Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. We’ll see. What’s sure is that I have the will and I will give everything to make my dreams come true.”