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Hope Refugees Football Club

For some refugees in Athens, football is the only way to escape depression

On a beautiful Sunday in spring, like many others, at a football pitch in Athens’ Tavros neighbourhood, a match kicks off. It’s somewhat different from the traditional football match. The amateur team of the Greek capital’s law society is playing against a multicultural group of boys coming from some of the most devastated countries in the world: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan,but also Iran and Pakistan.

Two minutes from the end of the match, the Syrian defender Ahmad crosses the ball with laser precision to his teammate, Hozefa, in the box. Hozefa stops the ball with his chest, pivots and strikes the ball into the net for the seventh goal of the game. With incredible technical skill, he seals a 7-1 victory, an overwhelming win for the Hope Refugees FC team. The team is made up entirely of refugees who can no longer leave Greece after the closure of the borders along the Balkan route. Boys between twenty and thirty years old, they come together to share one of the most intense and complex experiences of their lives: exile, exodus, abandonment of their homes and their families. A journey where nothing is certain, crossing increasingly difficult frontiers, towards an unknown destination.

Athens represents for all of them the longest and surely the most difficult stop. The last for some. Used to living in refugee camps and in the spaces they have occupied in the Greek capital, these boys have found in football an escape route from depression, while waiting to understand what will be their destiny. The Skaramagas refugee camp, a vast group of containers on an enormous parking lot facing the Gulf of Elefsina, became home to the very first kickabouts among the refugees and the genesis of an idea. “Within a few weeks we had organized a team,” explains Abdullah, who was a physical education teacher in Iraq before he emigrated to Greece. “We received quite sizeable financing from UEFA and good support from an NGO run by the former vice-president of Olympiakos, Organization of Earth,” he continues. “At that point we found a coach and a small pitch at Piraeus where we could train twice a week.”

The project immediately gained the interest of Antonis Nikopolidis, famous goalkeeper of the amazing Greek team whose victory at the European Football Championship in 2004 was followed almost with disbelief by half of Europe. “When they asked me to give them a hand, I couldn’t re- fuse. In 2004 we achieved the unbelievable. Now we want to support these boys and help them have fun. More than anything else, they need to free their minds of their everyday problems. Some of them are really talented.”

Ahmad, 27 years old, who made that decisive pass for the last goal of the match, explains that before abandoning Homs, theatre of the first protests of the Syrian Revolution and today a ghost town, he played in a first division team. “I tried to hang on for as long as possible, but – like a lot of friends before me – I crossed Turkey and Greece by land, passing over a river at the Evros border, paying 1500 euros to a trafficker to show us the way. Not all the migrants who were with me made it. Once we got to Thessaloniki, when the worst seemed behind us, the traffickers held us hostage for a week, asking for more money. I was travelling with a Kurdish friend who managed to get us out.” It’s been a few months since the Skaramagas camp became home to Ahmad and the hills all around became his training ground. “I prefer to train alone,” he says. “It takes more than an hour to travel to the training field in Piraeus and my teammates’ competitive spirit isn’t always the greatest,” he continues.

The gutsy team coach, Antreas Sampani, often has Ahmad help him during practice, both for stretching exercises and for translations. “I try to get the best out of my boys,” Antreas tells me. “I realize that many would like to be elsewhere right now,” comments the young coach. “It isn’t easy managing a team of this type. Some of them could disappear from one day to the next, and I can only wish them well.”

That’s exactly what Ahmad plans to do. Vanish, like a thief in the night. His blue eyes and his facial similaritiy to a European help him. Three times already, he has gone to Athens Airport with fake documents to try to fly elsewhere in Europe. Up to now, they’ve always stopped him at the last moment, but he tries again. “If it doesn’t work out, I’ll ask for asylum here in Greece, even if the situation isn’t simple,” he says. “My brother lives in Germany and it’s my priority to reunite with him.” That night at an appointment in Viktoria Square to buy new fake documents, he waits in a bar for several hours for a call from the courier, then the transaction takes place in an alley near the square. For two thousand euros, he has bought a German identity card and a plane ticket from Athens to Berlin with the Aegean company. “This time I hope to make it,” he says. In fact, he will make it.

Hozefa, the Syrian attacker and leading scorer on the team, is also constantly thinking about leaving. To rebuild a life and to leave this limbo in which he has found himself in for several months. “I love this team,” he says. “I love Greece and all its people, who have helped us tremendously, and shown great humanity and solidarity. I would be really happy if I could live here, but the economy is collapsing and there’s nothing I can do when I’m not on the field … But, when I’m running after a ball, I’m only thinking about putting it in the back of the net!”

Credits

“Hope Refugees FC”
Nicola Zolin

April 7, 2020

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