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Stories from UOW

The volleyball game that brings together people from different cultures in Wollongong.

What’s the best way to bring together a Pakistani, an Indian, a Saudi, a Canadian, a Swiss, a German, a Japanese and an Australian? Add a ball.

In 2015, Paul Ikutegbe had newly arrived to Wollongong. He came from Nigeria to pursue a Master’s degree at UOW and the cultural contrasts, as you might imagine, were stark. But sport, Paul quickly found out, is universal.

Heading to the beach one day, Paul happened upon a volleyball court that was just begging for a game to be played.

“We got to the beach one day and saw the volleyball poles and we were like we could actually do this and see what happens,” says Paul. “And it’s a way to meet people as well.

“The idea was just to have something free to play since we had to pay for everything else. But after starting I noticed another problem, which was that a lot of international students were a bit more reserved to actually interact with people from other cultures because they were afraid of being judged. Volleyball was kind of a way to bridge that divide.”

From a modest beginning, the group quickly swelled. Now, anywhere from 10 to 40 people meet every Saturday morning for a bump, a set and a spike. It’s not all about the volleyball though.

“If you’re having fun then for me that’s enough,” he says. “And the fact that you’re having fun and you’re actually connecting and making friends from it, that for me is the biggest satisfaction. We don’t really expect you to be good at it. Just come and make friends. Sports, basically regardless of which one, breaks the barriers.”

So, does he miss Nigeria? Paul says he mostly misses his loved ones.

“Family obviously. Most people would say they miss home, but I think I have felt more at home [in Australia]. It’s multi-cultural and I’ve always looked forward to meeting people from other cultures. That really made it much more home.”

As someone who came to these shores from a foreign land, Paul had some advice he would pass along to others who find themselves in a similar situation.

“If you seek out only people from your country, you speak the same language, you don’t learn anything exactly new because it’s still the same,” he says. “So I would say actively seek to interact with other cultures and people from other cultures. And as daunting as that is, I strongly believe sports are a very strong way to get around that because sports is open to everyone.”

That includes volleyball on Saturday morning.

“If you’re ever in Wollongong, stop by North Beach around 9am and you will see a bunch of people – both internationals and domestics – playing. Drop by any time.”

Story by Matthew Wormald.

Photos by Kaylee McMillan.

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