CHANGKUOTH Jiath arrived in Melbourne as a six-year-old dreaming about becoming the next Thierry Henry. He had no idea he was landing in a neck of the woods where a different football code is the local religion. At the time, he could only say hello and goodbye, learning English by watching The Simpsons and Futurama. 

Now almost two decades later, kids are running around with Jiath's number on their backs at Auskick and at games around the country. No one creates more excitement at Hawthorn right now than the 22-year-old who has emerged as one of the most watchable players in the AFL across the past 18 months with his devastating dash and ball use off half-back.

But despite the endless possibilities his new life is creating, the Hawk affectionately known as 'CJ' will never forget the life-changing decisions that were made for him to get here. 

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Jiath joy with first AFL goal

All smiles for Changkuoth Jiath after the impressive defender streams forward for a stunning first goal in the AFL

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Before he was born, his parents fled Sudan on foot amid the violent civil war that threatened to recruit their children as child soldiers. They walked for a week in search of safety, not knowing where they would end up. 

Jiath was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and spent the first six years of his life living in the African nation, waiting for the family to be accepted by a country to start a new life. It took nearly two years for Australia to accept them, but finally the family moved to Dandenong before settling in country Victoria, among a large South Sudanese community. 

"Being born in a refugee camp, as you can imagine, it was very tough. There were a lot of misplaced people, misplaced families, and kids. There was not enough water, food, medicine and stuff like that. But it's shaped me to be a person that looks at things in a very positive way," Jiath told AFL.com.au this week. 

"There wasn't a lot of food, but we also had fun as kids playing soccer with our friends, enjoying the best out of not having much. A lot of my siblings were also born in the refugee camp. It was very interesting, but all I can remember is playing soccer, running around and just having fun, really."

Changkuoth Jiath runs with the ball during Hawthorn's clash against Gold Coast in round 11, 2022. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos

Jiath and his family started a new life in Morwell, two hours east of Melbourne in the Latrobe Valley. Sport was a key part from an early age – it was how he fit in – but he wasn't initially drawn to football when he first saw others kicking a Sherrin around at school. 

He tried it for the first time at 11 and it didn't take long for him to become intrigued by a sport that would completely change his world. Before long, he was playing junior football for Morwell, except for Sunday games when they clashed with church. His dad is a pastor and only gave him his blessing to pursue football when his son proved he was dedicated to giving it his best shot. 

In the space of a few years, Jiath went from learning how to kick, mark and handball to becoming a gun in the region, earning an invitation from the Gippsland Power football program. Then Xavier College offered him a scholarship and an opportunity to live on campus in the Kew boarding house. It was a life-changing experience, but one that took some careful consideration given it would mean leaving a family that had fled across the world together.

"It was very daunting and it was very tough because of how close I am with my family. We have such a big family and obviously the history and the culture I didn't want to leave behind and just go to a different school and not see my family a lot. It wasn't an easy decision," Jiath explained inside Waverley Park on a special edition of AFL Daily.

Changkuoth Jiath is tackled during Hawthorn's meeting with St Kilda in round four, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Jiath started at Xavier in year 11 at a time when he found it easier to assimilate compared to his younger brother, who started in year nine later. But the timing was tough due to the deluge of negative media focusing on African gang culture at the time. 

It was front page news and dominated talkback radio discussion, making it incredibly difficult for a 16-year-old moving from a South Sudanese community into one of the most prestigious schools in the country, in an affluent corner of Melbourne without much diversity. 

"I'm sure you can imagine, Morwell to Kew is very foreign. Lots of different faces. It also had its challenges. Not many people would see a kid with different coloured skin in that area," he said.

"At the time, the headlines were all about the African gangs and how terrible and vicious and deadly they are. I felt like I was portrayed as a villain and a gang member, even though I'd come from such a loving family. It was very tough making that move during that. But there were also lots of positives. Xavier welcomed me with welcome arms and treated me like one of them and a member of their community."

Changkuoth Jiath greets Hawthorn fans after the R5 clash against Geelong at the MCG on April 18, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

First XVIII football is the cornerstone of the APS competition and a huge part of life at Xavier College. Jiath loved this element of the boarding experience, thrived under the coaching of famous alumni Luke and Matthew Ball and played alongside future Western Bulldogs Laitham Vandermeer and Bailey Smith, before he became Bailey Smith.

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"He is a rockstar now, a gun of a player. He is in contention to be an All-Australian player this year. In year 11, he was in year 10, and you saw this small kid that was starting to build a lot of confidence. At the time he'd just been picked to be in the AIS and you just started to see that he was going to be a gun, the swagger, the speed with the ball. To have been able to play with him was pretty cool," he said.

It was at this time that Hawthorn first became involved in Jiath's ascension to the AFL. The league had just introduced a pilot program for the Next Generation Academy and was in the early stages of ironing out the wrinkles in the process. The Hawks had access to Jiath via their Gippsland Power alignment and invited him to join the academy in his teenage years. 

Former Richmond gun midfielder Nathan Foley was the head of Hawthorn's academy at the time before joining the Hawks' recruiting team – he is now working in the commercial department at the AFL – and worked closely with Jiath. They spent countless hours together doing one on one sessions at Xavier, focusing on driving his legs out of stoppages and kicking on the run, analysing tape and sitting down over many coffees in Hawthorn. 

Changkuoth Jiath flies for a mark during Hawthorn's clash with Brisbane in round 10, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Jiath hasn't forgotten those sessions, nor has he forgotten a pivotal meeting he had with Sam Mitchell at the end of 2020. By that stage, the dashing defender who made an unforgettable debut in the snow at Canberra in round 21, 2019, had played seven games and was in danger of not making it. 

"At the time, I would normally chat with Sam regularly. I would go into his office and just chat about pretty much anything. Mid conversation he just stopped and said, 'CJ, why aren't you playing AFL footy?' Just like that, it was mid conversation," he said. 

"There was a five-second pause. I questioned myself, 'Why aren't I playing AFL?' He said, 'You've got the attributes to be playing in the AFL, why aren't you playing regular footy?' It made me think, 'Why aren't I? I should be believing in myself; I should be playing regular footy.'

"I had a really bad year that year and knew this wasn't where I wanted to be. I walked out of that office and just wanted to hit the weights and get on the track. It made me want to get the best out of myself. He believed in me, why don't I? it was as simple as that. Sometimes you just need someone to guide you along the way. Sam has been a big part of my development in the past couple of years."

Changkuoth Jiath and Sam Mitchell hug after Hawthorn's win over North Melbourne in round one, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Mitchell, who has since become the coach of Hawthorn after winning four premierships and a Brownlow Medal in the brown and gold, isn't the only club great to play a key role in Jiath's development as a player and person.  

Russell Greene starred in three Hawthorn premierships in the 1980s and finished with 304 games next to his name – 184 for the Hawks after 120 for St Kilda – a Peter Crimmins Medal and a Therabody All-Australian jumper, but has since remained involved with the club as a host for draftees from out of Melbourne. 

Jiath lived with the Greenes when he was selected by Hawthorn and was handed the No.29 worn by Greene during his time at the Hawks. But when Shaun Burgoyne retired at the end of last season after 407 games, the club offered Jiath the chance to wear the number made famous by Brownlow Medallists Shane Crawford, Robert DiPierdomenico and Col Austen. 

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"I had the No.29 and that meant a lot to me. I lived with Russell Greene, the great ex-Hawks player. He won a lot of premierships, was a Peter Crimmins Medallist and a real clubman. He has been awesome to me. Him and Roxy Greene looked after me. They were very caring and it was unbelievable the way they treated me. Leaving the No.29 wasn't easy," he said.

"I remember I went over for dinner one night and I wanted to tell them I'd been offered the No.9, what do you think Russell? Two hours goes by and I don't know what to say, I'm stressing out. I was finally able to get it out and he told me to definitely take it. He told me it's an unbelievable opportunity. I was very upset because the club definitely wanted me to wear the No.9. I wanted to wear it as well, but didn't want Russell to feel bad. I still keep in contact with Russell. I still cherish the No.29. A lot of history I had with debuting in the snow with it."

Jiath is creating his own history now. He is part of a sweeping wave of South Sudanese players making the game better in 2022. Port Adelaide star Aliir Aliir was named in the Therabody All-Australian team last year. Mabior Chol has become a gun at Gold Coast. Buku Khamis has burst onto the scene of late. Mac Andrew and Leek Aleer made history when they were both selected in the first round of the 2021 NAB AFL Draft, before Fremantle plucked raw key forward Sebit Kuek out of the WAFL in the mid-season rookie draft.

Aliir Aliir in action for Port Adelaide against North Melbourne in round nine, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

"I'm so proud. In a short span, it is such a big impact the South Sudanese community has been able to contribute to the AFL. It's going to continue to grow as well and that's why I'm so rapt for everyone. We've had another draftee as well for the Fremantle Dockers last week. If you haven't seen his highlights, they are unbelievable. He is a freak," he said. 

"It's just continuing to grow. I'm not surprised. The South Sudanese community is such a young generation coming into Australia. They are starting to make their way through the community and become business owners, athletes, everything. We are just starting to see the first wave come through the AFL. It's so exciting to be able to see that and be part of that.”

Jiath has travelled a long way to get here. And he is just getting started.