Zayran. That was the name of the 21-year-old refugee that made space in his less than luxurious shelter for me to stay. Even ‘less than luxurious’ would be an understatement. Try: a poor excuse for a wooden shack, with nothing but a blanket to sleep on.
The walls reeked like a concoction of misery and poverty. ‘This is not my house; this is your house. Anything you need or want in it is yours’ is what he said to me as I lay down. I had never felt so welcomed in my life. The man standing before me had nothing. He was alone in France. All the clothes he wore had been donated. The small, sorry excuse of a shelter he lived in was one of over 300 provided by French authorities. When the so-called charitable organisations could not offer me a place to stay, this man could. The man with nothing.
Zayran was an infamous character around camp, especially amongst volunteers. His inexhaustible charm and endless fun-loving nature made him a popular figure. Volunteers would flock to him for the relief he offered from the tiresome day-to-day work. His beliefs and moral compass appeared unmatched. He constantly explained to people that it doesn’t matter about race, or where you’re from because we are all one and the same.
It was on the second night of staying with Zayran that he opened up to me. As he began talking to me I could see true pain and fear in his eyes. It was as if he had morphed into a small child, scared … alone. This was his story:
‘As I stood by the side of the road back in Kurdistan (Iraq), this strange figure approached me. I knew immediately who he was. IS. At first he started talking to me as if we were long-lost friends. Then something changed. He began saying something about a mission and my duty. It was then he asked the question. I need you to take a suicide vest, go to the centre of town and blow yourself up, can you do that for me? At first I did not know what to say. Then in an angry outburst I told him I would never — ever do that. What he is doing is wrong and only an idiot would agree to do what he said.
Later that day as I returned from work on my moped, I could not stop thinking about what had happened earlier on. Was I at risk of being attacked? Does he know where I live? Fear began to grow inside me. In the distance I could see this large truck coming towards me … slowly … slowly. As it came nearer I thought I recognised the driver. I looked closer… all of a sudden the truck swerved straight into my path and hit me head on.
When I woke up I was in hospital. The entire left side of my body was bandaged up. The pain was endless. I thought I was going to die.
As time went on I began to recover and things started looking up. Until the visit of my brother. When he entered the room I could sense fear in him. What he told me would change my life forever.
If I did not die in hospital from my injuries, IS will come again and again to attack me until I am dead.
When I was finally able to leave the hospital and go home to my family, I was not the same. I lived in constant fear, not only for myself but also for my family. I could not bear it any longer I had to leave … .’
As he told me his story I could not help but have so much respect for him. To have gone through what he has, and still have a smile on your face takes real courage and strength. Though it was clear his past had affected him dramatically. Behind the smiles and laughter there was vulnerability and fragility. Zayran was forced to leave behind everything he has ever known and loved. He is alone.
That’s when I started to wonder if this football project could have any kind of positive impact on him. When you thought of Zayran you definitely did not think of fitness or sport. But the aim of the project was to bring all kinds of people together no matter what their footballing ability was. So I managed to convince him to come along to the training. It was great to see him together with everyone outside the claustrophobic atmosphere of the camp. Inevitably he became a central figure on the pitch. He may not have been the best or fittest player, but he had the charisma and energy to guide his team.
Towards the end of the training things took an unsavoury turn. After a decision from the referee, Zayran erupted into a fit of anger. ‘You are racist’ he shouted as he tore his shirt from his sweat-drenched body and stormed off the pitch. To many, what he did might be seen as poor sportsmanship and irrational, but it just shows you how passionate he was. When I delved deeper into why he started coming to the football training, I finally understood the powerful impact football can have. Having to leave your family and friends behind is a great loss, which understandably results in a whole array of emotions. By getting people like Zayran involved in such a competitive sport allows them to release a lot of their emotional pain and anger through either the physicality, technicality or even ferocity that comes with playing football.
Refugees have been through unimaginable pain and suffering, and activities like football can be used as an outlet for them. Zayran for example had little to no interest in football, and yet it was evident it had a strong impact on him.
Understandably, football will always have its limitations as to how much it can influence someone. But as long as it is capable of reaching those who have been most displaced and disheartened, it remains invaluable.
‘When I go to football my body and mind feel happy and free. All refugees are sad. Football is like peace. When refugees play football they are happy.’