GAEL BIGIRIMANA’S MIRACLE: ‘Toon Army's' Journey from Burundi War Flee to English Premiership Spotlight
It’s nothing but a miracle, where I’ve come from to be in this place. Gael Bigirimana of Newcastle United said, “If somebody told me five years ago that I'll be here, I’d say, ‘you’re crazy.”
The pristine turf at St. James Park is a world away from the dusty streets of Burundi where Bigirimana first cut his footballing teeth.
Sharing the family home with his three siblings and extended family in the capital Bujumbura, when Bigirimana wasn’t playing football, he was watching it – Spanish club Real Madrid catch his fancy.
“It was tough sometimes, but as far as I can remember, it was good times for Me.” says about his childhood. “We didn’t have boots or real football, but we appreciated what we had. There was a good spirit as we played on the dusty streets or any open space we found in Bujumbura. We didn’t have a lot but we lived a good and simple life to the maximum.”
But with the specter of civil war growing, Bigirimana’s family was displaced as the relationship between the country’s Hutu and Tutsi tribes fractured violently.
“The war was the reason we fled to Uganda. So we kind of divided.” Bigirimana explained. “We got separated from my mum for four years. But one day, she rang and said, ‘I’m in England and my plan is to bring you guys here.’ She said the plan is to bring us to England to have a good education.”
The contrast between downtown Kampala in Uganda and a manufacturing city in the heart of England couldn’t have been greater, but Bigirimana took it in his slide.
“As a child, it was tough in Kampala, but it worked out for my good. It made me tough too. I just put my trust in God that he knows what He’s doing and I will see my Mum anytime, any day.”
“I came to England and I don’t know how to explain it. It was cool.” He said. “Every African kid, their dream is to come to Europe or America – in their head that’s paradise. But I used to run to school to save paying the modest bus fare. It was that tough at first, but God favored me.” Bigirimana explained.
And his big break may never have happened had his Mom not sent him on a fateful trip to the shop to buy a pint of Milk. His errand took him pass the training academy of third division club, Coventry City, when he felt compelled to knock on the door and ask for a trial.
“I heard the small voice inside of me saying, ‘go and play and I thought; Okay I obeyed the voice.” Bigirimana told CNN’s Human to Hero Series.
“I said a prayer: ‘God these guys don’t know me. I don’t know them, just make them say yes – even if they don’t understand me just make them say, yes, yes, yes!”
The precocious boy then, age 10, tapped the heavily built Gooding by the shoulder and asked if he could play. It was a meeting that would change Bigirimana’s life forever.
Yes, Gooding promised the kid that he’d pop along next time he played in a match. Overjoyed, Bigirimana scurried to get home to tell his family.
“I was really excited then, I started jogging not even sprinting, just jogging with happiness.” He explained. “As I was jogging up the hill to go home, they stopped me. They called me back and said ‘Do you have your own equipment - boots and stuff?’ I didn’t but I said yes and then they said, ‘Come back tomorrow and start training.”
“They said they saw me running fast like an athlete that’s where I believe God showed them something like a glimpse of the future – how I was going to turn out to be.”
When Gooding moved to join the academy at Newcastle United in the northeast of England, his employers asked if there were any bright prospects at Coventry that might interest them – that was how Bigirimana came to Newcastle four years after.
Now 19, he harbors the hopes and dreams of some of most passionate supporters in the country – known as the Toon Army – and is watched by billions of football fans across the globe.
“The reason I play football now is for my friends back in Africa; and for all of the kids who were in my position when I was in Africa or who never thought I’d play in the Premier league. I say never give up and never quit on you…” Bigirimana gives words of encouragement to young players back in Africa.