Home is somewhere I feel safe and now that's Belfast says soccer-playing Syrian
For one Belfast team, soccer is supposedly more about getting together than playing competitively. Except that some members – all Syrian refugees – still harbour dreams of being the next Cristiano Ronaldo
WHEN Syrian teenager Ibrihim Ali fled his war-torn home of Homs in 2013 to cross the border into neighbouring Iraq, it was a blazing hot day, with temperatures peaking at around 45C.
Walking for hours in the blistering heat, with no food or water and few possessions, it was an uncomfortable trek for the teenager, his parents, two brothers and sister. On reaching Iraq in the late afternoon, the family, alongside hundreds of others, were taken by bus to a refugee camp. That place was to be Ibrihim's home for almost four years until he and his family were relocated to Northern Ireland on October 15 2017.
Two years previously, Northern Ireland social justice charity Extern had been approached to provide support to Syrian refugees as part of Northern Ireland's participation in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. To date, more than 1,400 people have been resettled across the north under the programme.
As a young boy growing up in Syria, before civil war broke out, leaving more than 360,000 people dead and towns and cities destroyed, Ibrihim was a huge football fan, supporting European teams like Real Madrid and Juventus. Like many lads of his age, he harboured ambitions of emulating his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Watching and playing football were two simple pleasures for Ibrihim and his school friends. While based in the refugee camp in Iraq, his aspirations to one day play like Ronaldo helped him cope with tough times. So when he set up home in west Belfast and was asked to join the Extern Eagles – a team of young Syrian refugees established to help them to integrate and to enhance their physical and mental wellbeing – he jumped at the chance.
Speaking with the help of an interpretor, Ibrihim says: “When I was young at home I loved to watch football. I thought that when I got older I would like to play football like the players in Real Madrid and Juventus. I especially liked Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Playing with the Extern Eagles is good for me. I play on the left and right wings and sometimes midfield. We sometimes play twice a week and I've made new friends. It's good because it helps us to mingle. I didn't know the other players when I joined but we're all friends now.
“I still want to be a footballer but I'd like to be a barber too. I go to Belfast Met to study English so that I can become a barber when I'm older. I'm happy in Belfast. Everything is good here. Living in the refugee camp was very tough. The weather was so hot, conditions were bad and there was a lot of illness.
“When we first came to Belfast, we were all so happy because it was so very different to what we'd been used to in the camp in Iraq.”
Ibrihim vividly recalls the day he and his family left Homs to escape the violence.
“It was hot and we walked for a long time,” he says. “My brother has a medical condition and he can't tolerate heat so it was very hard for him.
“We had no water or food for three to four hours and when we did get water, it was warm. We arrived at the refugee camp around 4am and that's where we lived for almost four years. All five of my family slept in one tent. Everyone there was in the same situation as us and we had to rely on the help of different organisations.
“I knew nothing about Northern Ireland but we were so excited to get here and to get away from that suffering. Belfast is a nice city and we've had so much support since we arrived.
“If things were to become stable in Syria and there is a clear vision for the future, then maybe I will go back but otherwise, I will stay in Belfast.”
Extern Eagles team-mate Ala Al Deek (26) was studying law at university in his home town of Daraa when war broke out. With just one year of his law degree completed, he had to leave with his schoolteacher parents, brother and sister and move to the capital, Damascus. But when the violence spread, Ala's family had to relocate, this time to Amman in Jordan. Conditions weren't as treacherous as they were in the refugee camps but life was still difficult and the standard of living poor.
“Everything was so expensive and we didn't have much money,” Ala says. “I was working two jobs a day, getting paid ten to £15. My father was sick, my brother had moved on to Turkey and I was responsible for bringing in money, paying the rent and every day expenses. We all lived in a flat in Amman but it was tough.
“We had to leave Syria though. We couldn't stay. I'd been happy there before war broke out. I was going to university, I had a motorbike. Life was good. The day I left, it was just me and my brother. Because my parents were teachers they had to stay behind to do paperwork before joining us. That was the first time I'd left my family and it was the hardest day of my life. It was unforgettable.”
Through the VPRS scheme Ala and his family were offered the opportunity to come to Northern Ireland. He knew nothing about his new home so he looked it up on Google.
“I saw the city hall and it looked nice,” he said. “When I got here, someone said to me 'you know, we had troubles too for 30 years'. But everyone so far has been so friendly and helpful and I am very happy here.”
Living with his family first of all in Bangor, then south Belfast, Ala got a job at a local Tesco store. He works 20 hours a week, sometimes long shifts from 6am to 6pm but is grateful for the chance to be in employment. To improve his English, which he speaks almost fluently now, he enrolled for classes, attending twice a day.
“I really wanted to pick up the language so last year I went to college in the morning and again in the afternoon,” he says. “I even know some phrases – 'What's the craic?', 'Happy days' and 'Dead on'.
“My English wasn't great when I started my job but my manager and colleagues were very helpful.”
Unlike Ibrihim, Ala wasn't a keen football fan who dreamed of playing professionally some day, but he joined the Extern Eagles to meet new friends and socialise. A defender in the squad, he says he plays 'for fun' and has enjoyed getting to know fellow Syrians living in and around Belfast.
“I think it's good to be part of the team because I work a lot and don't get a chance to go out much,” he says. “I've just done a GCSE in Maths so was studying a lot and not getting to play football as much but I will get back to it.”
Next month the Extern Eagles will take part in the Fun Cup, a footballing tournament which will see around 200 young people from across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland compete. The event will take place at Girdwood Community Hub in north Belfast on August 1.
Gavin Connolly, assistant manager of Extern's VPRS scheme, which works alongside Barnados, says being part of the Eagles team not only gives the refugees an opportunity to make new friends and to improve their physical wellbeing but is vital for their mental health as well.
“We get together on a weekly basis, practise and arrange friendlies,” Gavin explains. “It's not about playing in a league or on a competitive basis. It's more about getting them together. A lot of these young men have missed out on education and recreational sports because they were having to work at such a young age. And, of course, many of them have been through traumatic events so looking after their mental health is important.”
Ala, who hopes to return to university at some stage to study business management, says being part of the team has been a crucial factor in his enjoyment of his new life here. He also cites his ability to work, earn a wage and win the respect of those around him as key.
And he now views Northern Ireland as the place he wants to spend his future.
“Yes, I'm from Syria – I was born there but, for me, home is somewhere I can feel safe," he says. "I feel safe here in Northern Ireland. I consider this my home and this is where I want to stay.”