Refugees add their footballing skills to Brazil's rich soccer scene

News Stories, 10 March 2009

© UNHCR/L.F.Godinho
Ali Abu Taha (centre) trains with colleagues from Brazsat in Brasilia.

BRASILIA, Brazil, March 10 (UNHCR) Ali Abu Taha has been thriving since last year becoming the first Palestinian to play for a professional football team. And it's possible that he could be soon joined by other young refugees who have also arrived in Brazil under a UNHCR-supported resettlement scheme.

The 19-year-old striker, who was born in Iraq and lived in a desert refugee camp in Jordan for months, was signed by Brazsat Football Club in the second division of the Brasilia district championship. The team now runs a programme aimed at promoting football and other sports as a local integration and protection tool for young refugees in Brazil.

Team officials say other refugees are likely to be hired, depending on the results of technical and medical exams. "This is a new pioneering activity in Brazil to foster integration. Being a very popular sport in Brazil, football it is a way for refugees to get closer to Brazilian culture," said Javier Lopez-Cifuentes, UNHCR's representative in Brazil.

Ali honed his football skills during the four years he and his family spent in Jordan's Ruweished camp after fleeing rising intimidation, threats and violence against Baghdad's once thriving Palestinian community. "We used to play for fun. We didn't have kit or shoes, only a ball," he recalled.

His life changed forever in September 2007, when he and his family were among the first group of more than 100 Palestinians to be accepted for resettlement by Brazil. They were flown to the city of Mogi das Cruzes, but Ali has sinced moved to an apartment in Brasilia which is closer to his team's ground, while his family resides in Sao Paolo state.

He trains hard with his new teammates, determined to reach the top. "I am in better physical condition and working hard, thinking of my future," Ali confided to UNHCR visitors, while adding that he was learning Portuguese. "I am [getting] much better and have made some very nice [Brazilian] friends."

The staff and management at Brazsat are delighted to have their first Palestinian and Arab player and believe he has what it takes to one day play for his new home country." "He is an example to all of us," said Alexsander Gomes, the team's technical director, who commended Ali on his physical and technical skills.

"We are very proud of him and we are also happy to be the first professional football team in Brazil with a refugee player," said João Gilberto Vaz, the president.

Back on the pitch, Ali mused on fate. "I had planned to go back to school to study law, but now I'm fulfilling a dream of being a football player in Brazil." What odds on him becoming the first Palestinian to score a goal for Brazil in the World Cup Finals in South Africa next year?

By Luiz Fernando Godinho and Valéria Graziano in Brasilia, Brazil




UNHCR country pages

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

Posted on 20 February 2007

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Palestinians Refugees in Iraq

Since the overthrow in 2003 of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, Palestinian refugees in Baghdad have increasingly become the targets of arrest, kidnapping, threats and murder, prompting thousands to flee the capital.

There are still an estimated 15,000 Palestinians in Iraq – compared to more than double that number in 2003. They live in constant fear, many without proper documentation. For those who try to leave, the trip to Iraq's border with Syria and Jordan is increasingly dangerous. Hundreds are stuck at the Iraq-Syrian border, too scared to go back and unable to cross the frontier. Those who do manage to leave Iraq, often do so illegally.

International support is urgently needed to find a temporary humanitarian solution for the Palestinians. UNHCR has repeatedly appealed to the international community and countries in the region to offer refuge to the Palestinians. The refugee agency has also approached resettlement countries, but only Canada and Syria have responded positively. Syria has since closed its borders to other desperate Palestinians.

UNHCR also advocates for better protection of the Palestinian community inside Iraq.

Palestinians Refugees in Iraq

Al Tanf: Leaving No Man's Land

In February 2010, the last 60 Palestinian inhabitants of the squalid camp of Al Tanf on the Syria-Iraq border were ushered onto buses and taken to another camp in Syria.

Al Tanf camp was established in May 2006, when hundreds of Palestinians fleeing persecution in Iraq tried in vain to cross into Syria. With no country willing to accept them, they remained on a strip of desert sandwiched between a busy highway and a wall in the no-man's-land between Iraq and Syria.

Along with daily worries about their security, the residents of Al Tanf suffered from heat, dust, sandstorms, fire, flooding and even snow. The passing vehicles posed another danger. At its peak, Al Tanf hosted some 1,300 people.

UNHCR encouraged resettlement countries to open their doors to the Palestinians. Since 2008, more than 900 of them have been accepted by countries such as Belgium, Chile, Finland, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The last group of Palestinians were transferred to Al Hol camp in Syria, where they face continuing restrictions and uncertainty.

Al Tanf: Leaving No Man's Land