A Country Divided, Immigration Gave France the Hero it Needed

Without a doubt, we’ll be hearing the name Kylian Mbappé for many more years to come. The 19-year-old soccer phenom scored four goals in the 2018 World Cup for the French national team, won FIFA’s “Best Young Player” award, and has already been dubbed the “next Cristiano Ronaldo.” Somehow, despite all the awards, the fame, and the money (according to Sports Illustrated, Mbappé earns $22,500 per game, plus a bonus of $350,000 for the World Cup victory), the teenager manages to stay both grounded and charitable. Earlier this week, he announced his plan to donate his earnings from the tournament victory to Premiers de Cordée, an organization that offers free sports programs to disabled and hospitalized children.

As a supporter of the cause since 2017, giving to Premiers de Cordée was a no-brainer decision for Mbappé.

“Kylian, he’s a great person,” Sebastien Ruffin, general manager of Premiers de Cordée, told Le Parisien. “He has a very good [relationship] with children, he always finds the right [words] to encourage them. I sometimes even feel that [he] takes more pleasure to play with the kids than the kids themselves.”

An Immigrant Story

Mbappé is the perfect role model for the children of Premiers de Cordée, because he personally knows what it’s like to have obstacles thrown his way.

Like many of his French teammates, Mbappé is a product of an immigrant family. His father is originally from Cameroon; his mother from Algeria. As mentioned by former French soccer player, Karim Benzema, the struggle of not being considered ‘a true French citizen’ extends even onto the soccer pitch: “If I score, I’m French. If I don’t, I’m Arab.”

Another wrench in the machine—Mbappé grew up in Bondy, one of Paris’ poorer suburbs.

Since the 1980s, the French government has restricted certain suburbs, such as Bondy, for African and Arab immigrants only. In these neighborhoods, about 36% of the residents live below the poverty line—tripling the national average—and the unemployment rate sits at a high 28%.

It’s even more difficult for French Muslims, as their society consistently marginalizes them with head-covering bans and other restrictions. The numbers speak for themselves—while Muslims are only 10% of the French population, they make up 60-70% of France’s prison population.

Despite the hardships, the reputations, and the racism, the suburb of Bondy certainly has something—or rather, someone—to be proud of these days.

A Hometown Hero

Mbappé is proof for the young children in France’s poorest neighborhoods that anything is possible, that success, acceptance, and achievement is not off limits for them.

“It makes me proud because he comes from the suburbs like me,” Yanis Jean, 14, said in an Al Jazeera interview. “I want to be like him one day.”

Loutfi Bechareff, 17, echoed Yanis’ sentiment: “It makes me so happy because Mbappé comes from here so when people ask me where I play, I say AS Bondy and they immediately know where I come from.”

Following the World Cup’s final match, the entire Bondy community anxiously awaited their hometown hero’s return with the trophy. Nabil Larbi, a municipal councilor at Bondy’s city hall, remembers growing up next door to Mbappé’s family. He tells CNN there’s no doubt that Mbappé is a figure of hope for the kids of Bondy. Larbi says, “When [the students] train and play, they can say: I can be someone, I can be someone.”

“I hope that the victory of France makes everybody in France remember that diversity is a strength and not the contrary,” Larbi continues. Mbappé’s actions also are a reminder that becoming famous doesn’t mean forgetting your roots; that even at 19 years old, you are never too young to help others reach their goals.

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