This story was published by the FA. It is being shared as part of the Together Through Sport campaign, under the UN TOGETHER banner.
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.