Until then, the only life the 15-year-old had known was in a refugee camp in Nepal; her parents had been exiled from Bhutan before she was born.
They were eventually granted refugee status in Australia, where Ms Acharya found herself without a path forward.
But within months Ms Acharya’s brother would introduce her to Football United, a drop-in football programme that would change her life in ways she never could have anticipated.
“I was always interested in playing sport, but back in my country we didn’t have many opportunities as girls,” she tells ABC News.
“I didn’t have that chance to play. But then I was going to training and they could see my skills improving day by day, and I could feel it as well.”
Ms Acharya, now 24, soon made friends in several community groups, with her confidence growing and English improving as quickly as her passing skills.
“The programme … made me feel like there were other people who had similar perspectives towards life,” she says.
“I could … see that there were other people who had similar struggles and who had also grown up in refugee camps.
“It helped me to realise that it’s never too late to start a new life.”
Bridging the gap for Syrian refugees
About 2,000 refugees have arrived in Australia from war-torn Syria in the past year, facing the same challenge as Ms Acharya — settling in a new and foreign country — and Football United has sprung into action to help make the process easier.
So far, an estimated 600 refugees have been settled in Sydney.
Having been referred by groups tasked by the Government to assist them in finding their feet — including the Lebanese Muslim Association, the Community Migrant Resource Centre and a branch of the Red Cross — several have begun working with Football United in last few weeks.
“We want to enable newly arrived people to engage with people already here,” Football United founder Anne Bunde-Birouste says.
Ms Bunde-Birouste is currently rolling out about eight sporting and personal development programmes in Sydney that will act as a “bridge” between refugees and local communities.
She is expecting hundreds of participants, including many Syrian refugees, at a Football United event on Friday to welcome the new arrivals to Sydney.
The event will see young participants, coaches and mentors from 20 different Football United programs come together to meet the new recruits and, of course, play a few games of football.
“It takes a few years for newly-arrived families to be able to access community sporting groups so there has to be an in-between [service],” Ms Bunde-Birouste says.
“An organisation like ours is there to be a bridge between a person or a family [who has just arrived in Australia] and being fully part of [the community].”
The history of Football United
Football United was first conceived when Ms Bunde-Birouste watched her home country, France, defeat Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final.
A senior lecturer in public health at the University of New South Wales, she was struck by the ability of football to bring different communities together.
But it was not until 2005 that she began to think seriously about designing a program to help refugees settle in Australia and pick up new life skills along the way.
A year later, Football United was born with a modest Saturday morning drop-in clinic in Western Sydney.
“We want to help [refugees] transition through adolescence in a positive and confident way, with a focus on community building and social inclusion,” Ms Bunde-Birouste says.
While Australian discourse on asylum seekers has descended in the past decade into rhetoric about national security and “illegals”, Football United has been quietly working to help refugees lucky enough to make it to Australia find their feet.
The programme — which includes after-school sessions, gala days and school holiday camps — uses football to teach vulnerable young people skills like teamwork, leadership, resilience and confidence.
A 2012 study conducted by the Australian Research Council on Football United’s impact found it also helped improve participants’ English skills, interactions with peers, engagement with school work and ability to understand and appreciate cultural differences.
Since then, more than 4,000 young people from about 70 different countries have been through the program, which is now running in several cities around Australia, including Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and Mount Gambier.
And, after originally launching to specifically help refugees, Football United now also welcomes youth from low socio-economic backgrounds and Indigenous Australians, who are often introduced to the programme by another community group or simply by word of mouth.
“It’s had a really great impact on my life,” Ms Acharya says.
“When I [look at] my friends who [came] to Australia at the same time and weren’t involved with Football United, I can see a lot of difference in terms of my confidence, my interactions with others.”
A virtuous cycle
Ms Bunde-Birouste still remembers the faces of all the people who have participated in Football United.
There was the six-year-old boy, one of the first to take part in the programme, who is now in Year 10 and in his second year of youth leadership training with Football United.
And the young girl who completed the programme in its early days and went on to receive a UNSW scholarship and is now paying it forward as a youth worker.
“We can’t say that Football United is the only thing that brought this about, but I’m 100 per cent sure that we’ve contributed strongly to helping these kids find a path,” Ms Bunde-Birouste says.
“It’s pretty incredible to see.”
This is the legacy of Football United. It’s not just a drop-in programme where kids enter, pick up some new skills and friends, and then leave.
It’s a virtuous cycle where those who find purpose through Football United go on to become mentors and coaches.
And its impact extends far beyond just football.
Ms Acharya, for example, is now a head coach at Football United, runs a Nepali-speaking dance class, is organising a multicultural festival and recently completed a nursing degree.
“I met some inspiring people in the programme who encouraged me to become someone like them,” she says.
“That motivated me to do something different than living a normal life.”
The dangers of deradicalisation funding
To keep Football United running Ms Bunde-Birouste relies on government and private funding, the uncertainty of which can be nerve-wracking. After a few initial “glory years”, funding for the project dried up in 2012.
“It’s very scary and heartbreaking,” Ms Bunde-Birouste says.
“We’ve got all this proof of success and [yet] we’re having a hard time surviving.”
Football United currently receives funding from corporate partners including Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers and IMC Pacific, along with FIFA, the NSW Ministry of Health and UNSW.
It also received a grant last year for an undisclosed sum as part of the Federal Government’s new $1.6 million Living Safe Together deradicalisation scheme, which awarded grants of up to $50,000 to 34 different community groups.
(Football United had previously received a grant of $131,505 in 2013 as part of the former deradicalisation scheme, though Ms Bunde-Birouste says “deradicalisation” is not the programme’s primary aim.)
“These intervention type services are an important part of addressing deradicalisation because they are designed to help individuals disengage from violence and reconnect with communities,” a spokesperson from the Attorney-General’s Department, which oversees the Countering Violent Extremism grants programme, told ABC News.
“These services are best delivered through credible and influential community groups and role models.”
But if Football United prevents radicalisation, Ms Bunde-Birouste says, it is simply a positive by-product of its central ethos — helping refugees settle in Australia quicker and easier.
“We don’t like this label of extremism but at least we feel [the Government is supporting] what we’re doing and that’s a good thing,” she says.
“If you look at the connection that these kids have and the understanding and engagement with each other, that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s a positive approach.”
From Denham Sadler, ABC