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