Leaving refugee camp behind, Syrian teenager dreams of soccer glory in Brazil sports academy: ‘I’ll make Syria proud’

Zaatari's main sports field in August. Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

The plane touched down in the coastal Brazilian metropolis of Rio de Janeiro last Wednesday, and Syrian soccer player Hafez Mahmoud al-Mohammad emerged to find a world unlike any he’d experienced before.

“Everything is green!” the 17-year-old says of the country that will host him for the next three years, as he and a handful of other Syrians join the professional Black Pearls Football Club and its affiliated athletic academy.

At the academy, about 100 teenage athletes—among them at-risk Brazilians and refugees from Haiti—take part in a residential program that includes both rigorous athletic training and academic studies.

Al-Mohammad’s new home in Brazil is a far cry from his last: the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, where roughly 80,000 Syrians—nearly 60 percent of them under age 24—live under the scorching desert sun in rows of metal caravans.

Recreational spaces and activities for Zaatari’s youth are limited, and jobs for all are scarce. Many residents are dependant on humanitarian organizations for aid and temporary “cash for work” programs to support their families. Some have relied on children to provide an income. Meanwhile, roughly 3,000 of the camp’s more than 24,000 eligible children don’t attend school, according to the most recent UN count.

But for al-Mohammad, who arrived to Zaatari from the Daraa countryside town of al-Ghariya al-Gharbiya in 2012, the camp’s dusty streets and makeshift soccer fields provided an unlikely environment to develop his game and, eventually, garner the attention of international athletic delegations that occasionally toured the area in search of young talent.

Al-Mohammad, third from left, with his family in August. Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

On one such tour earlier this year, Brazilian NGO Viva Rio, which supports the Black Pearls, arranged a visit to al-Mohammad’s family caravan. He knew the visit signaled good news.

“I couldn’t sleep that night, because I was so overjoyed,” he tells Syria Direct’s Waleed a-Noufal and Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim in a series of conversations held on the ground in Zaatari and, this week, over Facebook as the teen got his bearings in Brazil.

“God willing, I’ll make Syria proud.”

Q: How did you get started in soccer? Was there a way for you to compete in the camp?

When I came to Zaatari camp, we would play in the streets and people told me I was a good player. I had a friend who formed a team at the time, and he invited me to play with them. Since then, I have played left or center back [in defense].

I love the number 12, Marcelo [Vieira]’s number.

[Ed.:Al-Mohammad’s unofficial jersey number when playing with friends in Zaatari is 12, he says.]

I was really good at [defense], and I became well-known among everyone in the camp who had an interest in sports.

Then, last year, a Qatari athletic delegation came to the camp. They picked me, along with 18 other players, to go for a month to Qatar, where we went through intensive fitness training. Of course my performance improved significantly. I became faster and more knowledgeable about where to position myself. The visit to Qatar was really useful, even on a mental level as a change of scenery.

Al-Mohammad’s medals in his Zaatari caravan. Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

Q: How did you feel when you left Zaatari for Qatar?

I was really proud and happy. I felt like an entirely new person. We left the camp, and it was the first time I saw Amman [on the way to the airport]. Everything—including the streets and the buildings—was totally different from life in the camp. And I was especially thrilled to be with my teammates—that we were achieving our dreams together.

When I returned from Qatar, my ambitions had grown. I felt that I had to play in other countries and on other teams outside Jordan, since I had improved my game.

Q: How did it feel when the Brazilian delegation later came and said they would be selecting players to travel there? 

If they hadn’t picked me, I would’ve been heartbroken. But they came to the field and observed our speed and ability to carry out instructions. I gave it my all, and a few practices later, they told [my family] that the Brazilians were going to come visit our home. At that moment, I knew I had been selected.

They came to our home, took photos and asked my dad if he would be okay with me traveling [to Brazil]. That day, I couldn’t sleep because I was so overjoyed. I started imagining that I’ll get to meet Marcelo or play with him.

Q: How has your family reacted to your being selected to travel to Brazil?

My father has given me a lot of guidance, such as on how to respect the laws in Brazil. [He told me] to stay away from bad company and to stick with my teammates who are going with me, to abide by the teachings and advice of the coach, and that if someone treats me badly, not to react but rather to let the coach know.

Al-Mohammad's Syrian teammates arrive in Brazil to join the Black Pearls Football Club program in August. Photo courtesy of the Black Pearls Football Academy.

He also told me that I’m an ambassador for Syria, and that I’ll be representing my country through my behavior and my talent. And he gave me a sort of commandment in the future, if I become famous and rich, to establish homes for the poor, support unmarried men with their wedding expenses, build mosques and schools and found charitable societies for Syria.  

Q: How did you feel leaving the camp last week?

When I first departed, I was really thrilled to be leaving such a simple camp, destined for a big country—and at that, one that’s produced many of the most famous [soccer] players in the world.

Q: What were your first impressions upon arrival to Brazil, and how have you spent the first days?

How can I compare Brazil to the camp? In Brazil, everything is green! And the people have been kind and friendly—they’ve treated us well. The coaches and players as well.

Traveling was really tiring, but when we got here, everyone made us feel welcome. We began some training drills, and it’s really great. I’m very happy.

We haven’t yet started official training—that begins next Tuesday. We’ll be training every day, and classes are two days per week. We’ll even have a set eating schedule. Everything in our lives will be according to a system here.

Q: Is your goal from sports fame and money, or the game itself?

It’s about the game. I hope to join the Syrian national team in the future.

Q: If you become a famous player and sign a major contract, what do you hope to achieve that you haven’t already? 

Firstly, I’d like to do a big family reunion. My mom is Egyptian, and I’ve never met my relatives because they live in Egypt. I want to visit them and get to know them.

Q: Is there anything in particular that you’ll miss from Jordan?

The first thing I’ll miss from Jordan is the camp. I’ll miss my friends, my neighbors, my parents and my siblings the most. And I’ll certainly miss the soccer fields in Zaatari. I’ll remember how I used to play [there] and then think about where I’ve ended up. The fields here are organized and made with green grass, but I’ll still miss the Zaatari playing fields and will always think about them.

God willing, I’ll make Syria proud.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.