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

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

UNHCR staff have been visiting and talking to urban refugees around Brazil to assess their protection needs of refugees and other people of concern. The refugee agency, working with local partners, carries out a three-week Participatory Assessment every year. UNHCR uses an age, gender and diversity approach during the exercise. This means also talking to minority and vulnerable groups, including women, older people, those living with disability and more. The findings allow UNHCR to develop an appropriate protection response. This year's exercise was conducted in five cities - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Rio Grande de Sul and Manaus. Refugees taking part said the assessment allowed them to share views, problems and solutions with UNHCR and others. Various stakeholders, including government officials, aid workers and academics, also participated.

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

Irina was born in 1998 in Switzerland, daughter of a Brazilian mother and her Swiss boyfriend. Soon afterwards, her mother Denise went to the Brazilian Consulate in Geneva to get a passport for Irina. She was shocked when consular officials told her that under a 1994 amendment to the constitution, children born overseas to Brazilians could not automatically gain citizenship. To make matters worse,the new-born child could not get the nationality of her father at birth either. Irina was issued with temporary travel documents and her mother was told she would need to sort out the problem in Brazil.

In the end, it took Denise two years to get her daughter a Brazilian birth certificate, and even then it was not regarded as proof of nationality by the authorities. Denise turned for help to a group called Brasileirinhos Apátridas (Stateless Young Brazilians), which was lobbying for a constitutional amendment to guarantee nationality for children born overseas with at least one Brazilian parent.

In 2007, Brazil's National Congress approved a constitutional amendment that dropped the requirement of residence in Brazil for receiving citizenship. In addition to benefitting Irina, the law helped an estimated 200,000 children, who would have otherwise been left stateless and without many of thebasic rights that citizens enjoy. Today, children born abroad to Brazilian parents receive Brazilian nationality provided that they are registered with the Brazilian authorities, or they take up residence in Brazil and opt for Brazilian nationality.

"As a mother it was impossible to accept that my daughter wasn't considered Brazilian like me and her older brother, who was also born in Switzerland before the 1994 constitutional change," said Denise. "For me, the fact that my daughter would depend on a tourist visa to live in Brazil was an aberration."

Irina shares her mother's discomfort. "It's quite annoying when you feel you belong to a country and your parents only speak to you in that country's language, but you can't be recognized as a citizen of that country. It feels like they are stealing your childhood," the 12-year-old said.

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats