By DAVID FERGUSON
A FEW years ago many of the boys and men I’m watching and talking to were running not for fun, but to dodge bullets, trying to protect family members, and living in a state of ongoing stress and terror. Now, they are in Glasgow, meeting up every week to play football and taking steps on a new life.
“Football has given me a life,” said Abdul Aziz, a 19-year-old refugee who plays with the new United Yemeni Community in Scotland (UYCS) team, and United Glasgow. “The ball is just a ball, but it is why all these refugees are here, speaking to each other, laughing and feeling good. It’s just a ball but it is giving us a new life in Scotland.”
Abdul came to Scotland in 2019, aged 17, to escape war-torn Yemen, leaving behind his family, who urged him to go and make a life for himself somewhere safe. In Scotland there were other Yemeni people so he sought a new home in Glasgow. After a year, he found football with United Glasgow FC, a club created to support Scotland’s growing diversity, and Abdul has gone on to take the first couple of steps on the Scottish Football coaching ladder, with United Glasgow – and is already played in the men’s team alongside one of his early proteges.
United Glasgow FC is a multi-racial club formed in 2011, which has over 200 players from over 50 countries, and is part of a diverse, multi-racial football landscape that has been growing in Scotland in the past decade. It has led to the creation of clubs such as Unreal Madrid, AfroScots Dreams United FC, Universal FC, Glasgow Afghan United FC, Red Road, ‘Bars for Bears’ and recently launched Scoutable United FC, whose purpose is to promote talented players from ethnic backgrounds to Scottish semi-pro and pro clubs. They play in a 12-team Scottish Unity Football League (SUFL), competing for an impressive silver trophy donated by the Rangers Charity Foundation and which was won last season by Scoutable, after a penalty shoot-out with Red Road. Glasgow Afghan and the SUFL staged a Refugee Football Festival in June, with 24 teams featuring players of 50 different nationalities.
Football, it appears, is a universal language.
“We can all speak ‘football’,” says Abdul. “It’s ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘pass’, ‘fall back’, ‘mark’… we learn these words easily, so you can get to know people quickly on the football pitch. And that helps us become part of communities.”
That is the hope of Amr Alaghbari, vice-chair of the UYCS organisation and manager of the new UYCS football team. He came to Scotland in 2015, a year after the civil war broke out in Yemen. According to the UN, nearly 400,000 people have been killed in Yemen since then, either due to the war or the related famine and poor healthcare. In 2018, the UN warned that 13 million Yemeni civilians face starvation in what they forecast could become “the worst famine in the world in 100 years”.
Amr (33) explained: “I came to Scotland in 2015, as a refugee, to try and find a way out of that for me and my family. I was a bit older than some of these young boys, but it is difficult. You receive £55 a week, and you focus where you can live safely, and get food and drink, and get some work or study, and there is not much money left after that.
“But after about two years we started to see Yemeni people coming here more and more, and we decided to make a Yemeni community to help people find someone to talk to, who could speak their language, and help them to settle and cope with leaving their families and things like that. We knew we needed football, because we are addicted to football in Yemen, honestly, and we needed something to connect people who had come here, and have some fun together.
“Because of the war we don’t have grass pitch or artificial in Yemen, we play on the sand and dirt, in bare feet. But the problem here is that you have to pay to use a football pitch. We found it not easy to play somewhere outdoor with the rain, so we looked for indoor, but that was £50/£60 to hire for an hour, and some people would pay but not many. Everyone would have to pay £5, but many need transport to get there, maybe some need shoes or boots to play, and from the £55 that is not the focus.
“But now with the Yemeni community we have funding and the community pay for the pitch hire, and now we have 28 players and it is growing all the time. We have many, many more across Glasgow and out of Glasgow, but still money for transport means they cannot come. If we could provide free transport many more would come.
“We have African, Syrian, Yemenis, Uganda, Nigeria, Kuwait and Saudi players, and we also have Scottish! They are not all Muslim, some people are Christian, but one thing brings them together – the ball! The football is what brings them all together. About 90% are refugees and asylum seekers, some waiting for asylum still, and some are students here, but we welcome everyone.”
He admits his outlook on life has been transformed, and particularly his hopes for his family.
“I have been fortunate. My wife came and joined me and we now have a two-year-old son, who has been born here … and I think he is already liking football. He already speaks in a Scottish accent and goes to local nursery. Life will be very different for him here. Because of the economic situation for people in Yemen, we start work aged 12 or 13. I started in restaurants to make money for my family, and I worked in construction, carrying wheelbarrows with cement, and that kind of thing.
“I never get any chances to study in Yemen, or even to play much sport, but my son has many opportunities, in good health, education, and in sport. He will have choices and I think it will be easier for him to be included in sport in Glasgow because he is born here.”
Amr has great plans for the Yemeni club, and is taking advantage of Scotland’s approach to equality to tackle a cultural issue around girls and women playing football. But he is quick to add that real success will be seeing Yemeni players involved with local clubs, and potentially also making their way into the professional game.
“We are going to start a children’s team, maybe 7-10 years, to help support the children and families, and I want to have a women’s team too. That is not permitted in Yemen, it brings shame, but I do not agree with that. Maybe some of our older Yemeni people might not agree, but when you see how football can help bring people together and give them a future, why not we use that for girls and women too?
“We don’t want boys and girls just to play for Yemeni team; we want this to be a place to bring refugees and other people on their own, and isolated, and families, together, but we also want them to play for local teams and clubs, and become part of Glasgow and Scottish communities. We have two now who play for other clubs, Abdul and Nabil, and they are very good players.”