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Bitter sweet success for refugee weightlifter

An inner city cafe in Melbourne is a long way from where Commonwealth Games gold medallist Simplice Ribouem began his weightlifting career.


The 27-year old was born in a small village in Cameroon, in west Africa, where the first set weights he lifted were constructed out of old break discs filled with sand.

“In Cameroon life is not so easy, we try to make better day,” he told SBS.

“My family is over there and at the moment I don’t know how they are because I’m living in Australia and they living there and I cant see how they’re living there.

Simplice says he tries to talk to his family on the phone, but he doesn’t want to talk to them because it’s too painful.

“I don’t want to feel pain in my heart, there is depression on my mind before I answer the phone.”

Ribouem started weightlifting when he was 11-years-old, after his mother banned him from boxing because she thought the sport was too violent.

He went on to win medals in the All Africa Games and the World Championships in DOHA.

Then in 2006 he set his sights at the Commonwealth Games in Mebourne, where he won bronze for Cameroon.

But when it came to returning to his poverty-stricken homeland, Ribouem took a chance for a better life in Australia.

“I was thinking this year was my lucky year and I applied to be refugee. For three days I sleep outside on the street and after the game no one knows where I am. I sleep on the streets,” he said.

So how did it come that he’s gone from living on the streets to being a Commonwealth games gold medallist?

The Red Cross helped him out.

“I was very sad and down, they find me clothes, they find me food, they find me accommodation and I ask the manager there where can I find some place to train and they tell me take tram 76 it takes you to Hawthorn.,” he told SBS.

“I went to Hawthorn got lost there, I didnt speak English but people say it’s that way. When i went there I found the place for training and they say best thing is to start and get your body back and then we see.”

Ribouem learnt English and six months later he gained permanent residency.

And four years after that he travelled to New Delhi recently, where he won gold for Australia.

But despite his triumph, Ribouem’s thoughts were with his family in Cameroon.

Speaking to Channel Ten after his win, he said he feared for the safety of his family and how they would be treated after he won gold for his adopted country.

“The only thing I want to do is to bring my family, first of all my sister, when I go back to Australia,” he said.

Ribouem says he had to push these feelings aside when he stepped onto the competition square in New Delhi to win the 85 kilogram title.

But later, gold medal in hand, he says depression set in.

“I was really down in India. Everyone going home to enjoy it with their family and where is mine? I was lonely in my room, no noise from the kids, I just watch my medal like this and my medal can’t talk to me,” he says.

Since returning to Australia, Ribouem has received fan mail from young people and has appeared at primary schools throughout Victoria to show his Commonwealth Games gold.

And he now believes he can do more than inspire future athletes.

Ribouem says he’d like to be an advocate for refugees struggling to make a new life in Australia. But in the meantime, he’ll head back to the gym to prepare for the World Championships and ultimately, he hopes, the Olympics in Lodnon in 2012.

And with victory in these events, he says, he may finally be able to achieve his dreams to bring his family over, get married, find a partner and get married and enjoy life in Australia.

Abby Dinham, SBS Radio

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