Imagine travelling to a new country where you know no one, to chase a dream and to do something to support your family. To help them out in a world where every day is a challenge and every day is hard work.
Then imagine you start to succeed. That your dreams coming true and you’re on the edge of reaching your goals.
Finally, imagine the feeling when you find out that while you’ve been working hard on achieving your goals and chasing your dream, the person who you are working hard for, your inspiration, your rock, your mum, passes away.
This is the story of Semi Valemei.
As rookie winger Semi Valemei ran out on to the field to make his NRL debut against the Roosters, his family were huddled around a phone watching the game from the village of Navidamu in Fiji. A village so remote that even most people from Fiji have never heard of it.
To get there from Canberra is an ordeal to say the least. Flights from Canberra to Sydney and then to Nadi on the main island of Fiji doesn’t even mark the halfway point of the journey.
From there, you need to take an eight hour bus trip to the north of the island, a four hour boat ride to Vanua Levu – Fiji’s second largest island – and then a further two more bus trips to get to Navidamu. In total, the trip takes two days.
Growing up in Navidamu is full of fond memories for Valemei. From playing in the village to growing up with his parents Semisi and Mereseini and his siblings - four older brothers and three sisters.
Semi's family and friends react to news he will be making his debut
“When I run out on to the field, my mind is going back out to the village because when we are on the field in the village it’s a bit different from here. There’s no grass at all, only soil,” Valemei said. “When I’m on the field I always think of my mum.”
As the second youngest in the family, Valemei moved to Nadi by himself where he lived with a host family as he had the opportunity to further develop his rugby league and education. The financial support from his father helped make that first step in his rugby league journey possible.
While playing for a team in Nadi, Valemei was told at the beginning of 2018 that he was joining the Canberra Raiders but thought it was an elaborate prank at first.
“The coach told me, ‘You’re going to Australia’ and I told him ‘What for?’. He replied saying ‘Oh, you’re going to the Raiders’,” Valemei said. “I was shocked at the time he told me.
“I didn’t believe him, so I messaged my manager saying asking if what my coach had told me was true. He said ‘Yes. You’re coming here next week.”
With little time to organise the move across the Pacific Ocean, his father Semisi paid for his fares and organised everything so he could leave the following day.
His mother Mereseini, gave him advice that Valemei has lived by in his three years in Canberra.
“The only things she said was ‘When you go over there, always listen to your elders and never follow the wrong people, always go in the right direction’”, Valemei said.
With the financial and emotional support of his family, Valemei enjoyed his first season playing Under 20’s for Mounties – the Raiders’ affiliate side – but had challenges along the way.
“When I first came over, because I didn’t live with my mum, that was the most challenging part for me,” Valemei said. “It was pretty hard, I missed my mum and my dad so I just worked hard and tried to give them what they’ve given to me.”
However, at the beginning of 2019, Valemei received a phone call from his father which would shatter his world, his mother had passed away suddenly.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Valemei said. “I asked what happened, but he didn’t want to tell me because I was here [in Canberra].”
Valemei told Raiders Manager of Careers, Welfare and Education David Thom what had happened, and the club arranged for the Fijian to begin the long trip home the following day.
Upon his arrival at Navidamu, Valemei learned that his mother had passed away due to a heart attack.
“It was really hard for me because I’m really close with my mum,” Valemei said.
The following season proved to be an important year in Valemei’s career as he played a starring role for the Canberra Raiders U20’s side in their run to the Grand Final.
With his family sitting around a phone and watching the game back in the family home, Valemei scored a hattrick as the Raiders narrowly lost to South Sydney 16-14.
“It was my first ever Grand Final so it was really special for me,” Valemei said. “It is a good memory because my family was watching that game too. They were really proud of me and they were saying really good things about me too.”
His performances resulted in him being rewarded with a top 30 position in the Raiders squad and the winger began his first pre-season with the NRL squad.
With the security and opportunity that came as a result of his hard work, Valemei was in a position to help not just his father but also his younger sister Losavati who was starting grade six.
“Every month, I send money to my dad and sometimes to my brothers when they need it,” Valemei said. “Since my mum died, I’m thinking that this year I want to look after my small sister. So, before school started, I said to my dad to take her to buy stuff like the uniform, books and everything.”
Valemei and his little sister share a close bond and if Losavati gets her wish, may join her brother in Canberra when she’s older.
“Last year she told me, ‘When you get famous, I want to come to Australia and see what things are there. I’m in the village every day, I want to see what things are in Australia.’” Valemei said.
As the Raiders started losing players due to a horror run of injuries, Valemei took his opportunity as he made his NRL debut against the Sydney Roosters.
Semi Valemei gets his first try in the NRL
With his family gathered around the phone watching, Valemei was introduced to the action at halftime as he took his place on the right wing to help the Raiders record a memorable win.
In doing so, Valemei became Raider 366 and the first ever player from Navidamu to play in the NRL to the disbelief of his brothers.
“Straight after the game my brother Viliame called me and said ‘Boy, I cannot believe I’m talking to an NRL player’ and I was just laughing,“ Valemei said.
With memories of his mother in Valemei’s mind as he runs out on to the field and the rest of the family huddled together watching the action unfold, there’s no doubt that rugby league has brought his family closer.