November 30, 2016
ATHENS — They risked their lives crossing continents and seas, but for 90 minutes a week the biggest hurdle for these young men is avoiding the offside trap.
A new football team with big-name backing is aiming to make an impact in the Greek leagues, despite the difficulty of their situation and uncertainty of their future.
And as they take on Greek teams and make a name for themselves, the aim is for the impact of Hope Refugees United to be felt well beyond the football pitch.
Space to play
Seventeen-year-old Fahim Ahmadi is a striker with a keen eye for the goal and bright yellow football boots.
He also happens to be thousands of kilometers away from his home in Afghanistan, which he fled alone because of death threats from the Taliban.
In his home country, Ahmadi was a fast-rising talent, having played for the national team at youth levels. But for nine months after he began his journey toward Europe, football was not a priority, survival was.
Then he arrived in Athens’ port of Pireaus, where along with thousands of others he had to camp out in grim conditions, while the European countries he hoped to travel through one by one closed their borders.
There was, however, one small upside to living on a dock — space to play.
“Some friends I had made from Afghanistan said I should come and play football,” he explains. “It had been so long, I had almost forgotten how to play, but it soon came back and we started playing every night.”
It was the beginning of team Hope, which united players across the national divides that can cause tension within camps.
But it was only when a charitable organization co-founded by one of Greek football’s formerly most powerful figures stepped in that things really took off.
As ex-president of Greek football’s top professional league and former vice chairman of Olympiakos FC — one of the country’s most successful clubs — Petros Kokkalis knows about the glamorous side of football.
Yet in his role with Organization Earth, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with refugees, he also recognizes the sport’s power well away from big salary contracts and TV deals.
Amid broader efforts by the Greek government to get to grips with its 50,000 or more refugees stuck in the country after border closures, Ahmadi and many of his friends moved from Piraeus into a state-run camp named Skaramangas just outside central Athens.
It was here that Organization Earth stepped in, offering training sessions, support and equipment for youngsters and the fledgling team.
“Helping them participate in football is helping them take part in regular activity that was part of their former lives when they weren’t in danger,” he says. “It gives them a focus to their day and a focus to their dreams.”
For some of the older players, it also meant the opportunity to step up to a bigger stage.
It’s a warm night on the grassy training grounds located next to Olympiakos’ stadium, and footballers more used to playing on the concrete yard of their camp are doing their best to prove they can make the cut for Refugee Hope United’s top squad.
Thanks to Organization Earth, they now have regular access to the facilities, and two tryouts were held for a team that is set to join a Greek league in the coming weeks.
Among those waiting on the sidelines for his turn is 22-year-old Syrian Ali Shaheen.
“I want to be the goalkeeper and keep up with the training,” said Shaheen, who rediscovered a long-neglected passion for the game when he met the other players at Skaramangas.
As he waits to see if he will be relocated into Europe — a slow-moving process that has left many refugees in limbo — Shaheen explains to VOA what being able to play means to him.
“I feel like football makes me alive” said the 22-year-old, who would like to rebuild his life in Ireland. “I feel like I forget all of the bad stuff, really. I feel like I forget. I don’t think about the past, the war, anything. I just think about my future.”
No lack of ambition
Kokkalis sees the introduction of a refugee team into the Greek leagues as a process that benefits everyone, allowing players from divergent backgrounds to interact in a way that might not otherwise be possible.
“One of the aims is to de-ghettoize the refugees and get them out of camps and allow them to participate in Greek society,” he explains.
Ultimately, Ahmadi’s wish is to be reunited with his mother, who is in Germany and also fled Taliban death threats.
But while he waits, he wants to put those yellow football boots to use, and shows no lack of ambition when it comes to Hope Refugee United — a name picked by the players themselves.
“My hope is that we can become champions,” he says, smiling.