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“They empowered me, and I empowered them” – Gerald Mballe on Live Like You Play podcast

Close-up of a young man smiling and wearing glasses next to an inspirational quote.
Gerald Mballe on the Live Like You Play Podcast in March 2021.

Special Olympics Europe Eurasia Unified with Refugees Advisor, Gerald Mballe, was a recent guest on Live Like You Play, the podcast by Sport for Humanity which celebrates people around the world who use sport as a means to improve people’s lives. During the powerful and profound conversation with BBC host David Eades, Gerald inspired listeners by talking about his life, his journey from Cameroon to Europe, and the vital role sport and Special Olympics have played in leading him to where he is now.

In 2015, Gerald left an unstable life in Cameroon with the help of his uncle and embarked on a dangerous journey to find a safe harbour in Europe. “It was a very challenging journey,” he recalls. “We were witnessing daily brutal scenes where life had no value at all. The only instinct I had in that moment was to believe that there was something good waiting for me on the other side.”

Young man on a football pitch, in front of a podium celebrating with four teammates and biting a golden medal
Gerald Mballe celebrating with his team at the Rome Unified Football Tournament in 2017.

After months of struggle travelling through Nigeria, Niger, Algeria and Libya, Gerald was eventually rescued by the Italian Red Cross on the coast of Sicily and then transferred to one of their reception centre in Settimo Torinese, Northern Italy. However, the language barriers and the trauma of his most recent experiences were still weighing heavily on him, and Gerald said he felt like an outcast. Things changed when his then educator, Luigi Petrilo, supported him to find solace through sport. This eventually led to him discovering the world of Special Olympics. “[Upon my arrival in Turin,] I found myself in a situation where I was isolated, I thought I was nobody […] then I came in contact with these athletes who embraced me, called me by my name and gave me the possibility to play with them as a Unified partner,” he says. Being able to play sports again helped Gerald to rediscover his sense of team spirit and determination. He decided to focus his new-found energy on one thing: inclusion. “[Special Olympics athletes] empowered me, and [now] I empowered them.”

A group of volunteers of the Red Cross sitting in a circle on a boat, wearing masks.
Gerald Mballe with the Italian Red Cross in April 2020.

His talent and passion for football were soon noticed by Special Olympics Italy, which welcomed Gerald into the ranks of their Unified programme. He even had the opportunity to play for the national team at the Abu Dhabi World Games in 2019!

Earlier this year, Gerald took on a new role in our movement when he was appointed as the first-ever Advisor for the Unified with Refugees programme for Special Olympics Europe Eurasia. With his unique spirit, talent, resilience and passion for inclusion, there is no doubt that he will help athletes and refugees alike to find their voice and place in Special Olympics and in the world. His strong faith and optimism led Gerald to his current position, but it was at the Abu Dhabi World Games in 2019 that he realised just how much being part of Special Olympics was crucial for him. “I felt an amazing sensation,” he tells in the podcast. “Seeing all those people from all over the world in that specific place, at the specific time all with one common and specific purpose, all communicating their emotions to me in a powerful, non-verbal way.”

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