For the love of football: the Syrian teen refugees living their sporting dreams in Brazil

Four teenage boys from Syria have been plucked from a refugee camp in Jordan to be a part of a football club in Brazil, and their heartwarming journey is being made into a documentary

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Four teenage boys, all of them from Syria, look awestruck. They stand on the Copacabana Beach in Rio, facing the water, a new, bright future stretches ahead of them. One by one, they run into the onrushing waves. This is a moment of pure freedom to them, as less than a year ago they were living in a Jordanian refugee camp.

"We had never seen a beach in our lives and our first time in the ocean was in Brazil," explains Omar Al Deiri, who recently moved to South America along with three of his friends to be part of the Black Pearls Academy, a football club in Brazil that "aims to become the world refugee team", putting its recruits on the path to a professional football career. Omar is also one of the subjects of a documentary-in-the-making, called Five Football Dreams.

The colour and life of Copacabana Beach is, in every imaginable sense, a world away from the harsh cruelty of the Zaatari camp. Only months earlier, Omar was just another faceless boy the world had forgotten. Displaced by the Syrian war, he and his peers were not so much living, as merely existing. Then fate, and football, came calling, and their lives changed overnight.

Football as an escape

As a postgraduate student, Hashem Sabbagh, the man behind the project and the accompanying documentary about these four Syrian boys, had served a consulting internship in Rio de Janeiro with Viva Rio, a non-governmental organisation that runs the Black Pearls Academy. "Two years after graduating, and while working as a lawyer in Amman, I received a phone call from Mr Rubem Fernandes, managing director of Viva Rio," Sabbagh tells The National. "He wanted to look for, and bring, talented refugees who would be willing to enroll at the Black Pearls Academy in Brazil and I was his only contact in Jordan. From then on, I dedicated a large part of my life to making this dream project a reality."

When Zaatari camp, in the deserts of Jordan, took in its first refugees in 2012, few would have imagined that eight years on it would grow into a permanent home for almost 80,000 people.  Amid the ennui, the young boys of Zaatari had one escape: football.

For these children, the Black Pearls Academy project couldn't have been more fitting. Sabbagh tasked Jordanian directors Bassel Ghandour and Yassmina Karajah to film a documentary, which covers the journey from Zaatari to Rio. A series of trials were held at the camp and neighbouring villages to determined which boys were the best footballers. Among a willing, desperately determined group of youngsters, there were five that clearly stood out from the crowd.

There is Qais Al Damen, who, at age 15, is the youngest of the group. Then there's Omar, 16. Hafeth Al Mohammed,18, who is affectionately nicknamed “Marcelo” after the Real Madrid defender, comes next, followed by Ahmad Anjari, also 18, and the only one of the refugees who did not live in Zaatari. Mustafa Abdel Rahman was also chosen, but he made the last-minute decision to stay with his family in Jordan, leaving Sabbagh no time to find a replacement. For the other four, however, Brazil awaited.

“When the boys were chosen to go to Brazil, I had some sleepless nights and many doubts,” Sabbagh admits. “The cultural difference between living in a refugee camp and Brazil was something that was on my mind. The level of football, learning the language – they don’t even speak English – and adjusting to a totally different lifestyle. And, of course, most importantly, living away from their families.”

Adjusting to a new life

In the documentary, there are scenes of sparse football matches taking place on the dusty outskirts of the camp, and nights spent with family and friends waiting for the morning light to come and another day to repeat itself. Then we see the heartbreak of the boys leaving behind their families, who, in some cases, rely on the young men for their livelihood. The footage is all at the same time claustrophobic, heart-breaking, redemptive and, when the boys stand facing that blinding blue ocean, full of hope. Cinematically and symbolically, their journey pivots on arrival to Brazil; darkness is replaced with bright colour.

Showing off their newly honed skills on the beach. Courtesy Viva Rio

"Brazil is beautiful and we are happy," Omar tells The National. "In the first month it was different for us because the culture, weather and people are totally different from what we're used to. But, after that, we became more comfortable and able to make friends and speak to others, which helped us adapt quickly. The nature here is totally different from the Arab world where there are large areas of desert. Here it is very green and of course the beach was an out-of-this-world experience."

It seems Sabbagh needn’t have worried; the boys proved resilient and above all willing to learn. The transition was, in fact, much easier than expected. “It didn’t take that long to be honest,” says Ahmad. “What we were afraid of was how we would be able to speak to Brazilians. But soon enough we started learning the language and started making friends. People like us here.”

On the field, we are like brothers. They recognise that we do not understand everything in Portuguese, so they always support us.

It helped that a Syrian expatriate gave the boys Portuguese lessons, and academic studies go hand-in-hand with football training. After a difficult start, they felt at home playing with some of Rio’s finest talent. “The boys are doing very well in all aspects,” Marcus Badday, their coach at Pearl Football Academy, says. “They have good behaviour. They are developing physically and technically and tactically. They are learning Portuguese. They are getting stronger. Nothing could be better, I have to be very honest. They are performing as I would have dreamt them to.”

He adds that Omar is “an intelligent boy and takes good decisions in tight spots”. Qais is “getting taller and faster and has a great future”. Ahmad and Hafeth have both joined the U20s team “and will play in many matches”, he says. Their new teammates, meanwhile, have taken them to their heart, easing the transition on and off the pitch.

“On the field, we are like brothers,” says Ahmad. “They recognise that we do not understand everything in Portuguese, so they always support us. When we are not training, we are learning Portuguese, in the weight room, and swimming in the pool at the Academy.”

'A testament to human resilience and adaptation'

The nine months the four of them have spent in Brazil so far is the longest they have ever been away from their families, and this summer they will head home to Jordan for a reunion. Thankfully, in between, any sense of homesickness has been tempered by keeping in touch with loved ones on a daily basis. "We all miss our families," says Omar. "Prior to leaving for Brazil most of us had never been away from our families for even one night. But the good thing is we speak to them with our phones over video almost every day and are able to say 'hi' to everyone using [the messaging app] imo." Hafeth even finds time to play PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, an online multiplayer game, with his brothers on the other side of the world.

Making friends in Brazil. Courtesy Viva Rio

Feeling more settled now, the focus has turned firmly to those professional football contracts. “We have improved so much from when we were in the Zaatari,” says Hafeth. “In the camp we didn’t have a coach, we would just play. Here we have become football players. In a fitness race I came out third fastest and feel very strong physically.”

The two youngest members of the group, in particular, had to overcome physical as well as mental barriers to play with bigger, better-trained teammates. Qais explains: “Omar and I are 15 and 16, and we are training with the U20 team and sometimes even invited to train with the professional team. This has really improved our play. In terms of my body, I was weak before. Here we go to the weight room and it has helped my body evolve and become much stronger.”

Sabbagh couldn’t be prouder of how the project has turned out so far. Those sleepless nights are now long gone. “The boys are a testament to human resilience and adaptation,” he says. “They have adjusted wonderfully. They are competing for starting roles on the team and everyone has been impressed by their work ethic.”

Working towards their dreams

Nine months may not sound like a long time, but every second has been a gift for the foursome. Omar, Ahmad, Qais and Hafeth are now unrecognisable from the frail, nervous boys who left Jordan. “I saw my picture when I was in the camp and then looking at myself here, I don’t even recognise myself,” admits Omar. “I think about where we were last year, in the camp, playing on a dirt field, working in the fields, and now we are playing for a Brazilian team, gaining experience in life, training every day, having fun. It’s an amazing opportunity for us.”

Scenes from the documentary taken on the Copacabana Beach. Courtesy The Black Pearls Academy

The four boys are on a three-year programme at Black Pearls Academy and the hope is that by the summer of 2021 one or more will receive professional offers. The documentary, however, is set for a summer 2020 release, with the producers keeping an open mind for a second part to come one year later. Sabbagh and the directors are currently in negotiations to show Five Football Dreams at several film festivals, and hope to also find a platform for it on one of the major streaming services.

How their journey ends remains to be seen, but, for now, they have exceeded all expectations. “It's a beautiful thing to have a dream and to be able to work towards making it true,” says Ahmad. “To make our family and friends proud, it is important we continue to focus on our training sessions and our performance. Nothing is impossible and hopefully the dream will become a reality.”