I was one of 14 Syrians the FA invited to watch the England v Nigeria game at Wembley, accompanied by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Football has always been a big part of my life – growing up in Syria, as a refugee in the region and now in the UK. To me, it doesn’t matter where you are from. As long as there’s a love of football, we’ll always have something to talk about.
As a kid in Aleppo, I used to play football in the small park by my house with my neighbourhood friends. Back then, our pitch was nothing like the ones I saw on TV, but that made no difference to us. It was all about the game itself. I dreamed of being one of the players of Etihad (one of the most famous football clubs in Syria).
When I wasn’t playing football, my friends and I would watch the game on TV at a cafe. It was great to meet, cheer and catch up with people. It didn’t matter so much which league was playing, as long as it was football.
I remember the last time I watched a World Cup in my own country. It was the 2010 tournament in South Africa. Everyone in my town (Aleppo) gathered in local cafes to watch, cheer and trade banter for rival teams. I supported Argentina that World Cup – we didn’t win, but it was still special to watch.
In December of that same year, the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and it arrived in Syria in early 2011. From that time on, my life and the lives of millions of fellow Syrians changed forever.
The sheer level of violence and the disruption to everyday life left little room for football. It was a violent and brutal time, but not all the news was negative. I remember hearing about a time during a truce in Aleppo when individuals from the fighting sides managed to organise a football match. Just 15 kilometres from my house, the front-line that used to divide them turned into a neutral space where both sides put down their guns to play football. Although the truce was short-lived, the symbolism of that match was important to us in Aleppo – maybe there could be an end to the war.
In 2013, I fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq. Inside the refugee camp, football was a great activity for teenagers and young people with little or nothing to do. Camp organisers would arrange matches against other refugee camps or we would play with the local community. That’s how I got to know my Iraqi hosts and I could slowly see them overcome their preconceived notions of refugees. Even in Iraq, there were myths to disprove.
In 2015, I arrived in the UK as an asylum-seeker and was placed in Middlesbrough in northeast England. Trying to adapt to a new country is not easy or straightforward, especially for us those of us who were forced to flee our homes with no option to go back. We were separated from our families and our friends who had always been there to support us. Now, I was all alone in a country I’d never even seen before.
Although I was so happy to be in England and to feel safe, adapting to life here was complicated. Yes, I could speak the language and master basic tasks like shopping and taking public transportation, but there was a social and cultural element missing. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have a routine to ground myself. It was isolating.
It took a few months to figure out where to meet people. The Middlesbrough Football Club supported a group organising football matches for asylum-seekers, refugees and community members. I immediately joined the team and learned so much from the other refugees and the British players. It wasn’t only about football, but it was social too. This was my opportunity to not only share the pitch, but also to share food, culture, hopes and aspirations.
In 2016, I moved to London hoping to find meaningful work. Life in London is not easy and I found it hard to meet people. Once again, football introduced me to my newest circle of friends.
When The FA invited me to attend an England game at Wembley, I was beyond excited. It was a wonderful gesture, making me feel welcomed, valued and made to feel at home. IOM, the UN Migration Agency, facilitated the tickets for refugees, and I was one of a few Syrians invited to the game.
Watching England play at Wembley was like a dream come true. This was my chance to show my support for the country that has welcomed me. And, watching the joy on my fellow refugees’ faces was almost (I said almost) as enjoyable as watching the game itself. One man in his mid-forties smiled as he reminisced of watching games in Damascus and another Syrian woman laughed that her kids were so excited she had no peace until she bought them England flags and scarves, a week ahead of the game.
I asked one small Syrian boy about which team he supported. In fluent English, the boy replied, “I am here to support the Three Lions Team.’’ His response struck me because I could see he felt England had already become home and he wanted to support and cheer the country where they were given this opportunity. I know, because I felt the same way.
The atmosphere was incredible at the England v Nigeria game, especially watching the Three Lions score two goals in the first half! It brought back so many emotions hearing the roar from the stands. It reminded me of the old days in Aleppo when endless cheering and drums dominated Etihad’s games. Watching England win against Nigeria made me proud to be a fan of the team whose country embraced me.
In times of war and peace, football has been a part of my life, bringing me together with family, friends (old and new) to play it, watch it or to attend a game.
Now, I’m looking forward to supporting England in the World Cup.