Onside with refugees

Syrian goalkeeper shares pro football skills with Nottinghamshire children

Fahd Saleh, aged 31, from Homs in Syria was goalkeeper for one of his country's biggest football clubs: Al-Karamah.  © Paul Wu

MANSFIELD, Nottinghamshire – Helena Brothwell did not hide her enthusiasm.

“We are very excited to have Fahd with us,” said Brothwell, academy director at Queen Elizabeth’s Academy secondary school in Mansfield. He represented, she said, an opportunity for a school intent on “raising the aspirations of our students”.

Her endorsement is a measure of the impression Fahd Saleh, a former professional footballer and now a Syrian refugee, has already had on those he has met in Mansfield.

Resettled from Jordan with his young family to this Nottinghamshire town of some 100,000 people under the British government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) in December 2015, the enterprising 31-year old has wasted little time in getting involved in his new community.

We are all living in one world. We can’t just sit back and watch that happen and do nothing

“If I sit here,” Fahd explained, speaking in his new home in Mansfield’s suburbs, “I won’t learn anything.”

His energy, and that of his wife Tahrir, 24, who has set her sights on becoming an interpreter, is infectious, especially for those supporting them in their new lives. These include Barbara Nestor, the reason the Salehs find themselves in Mansfield.

In 2015, Nestor, a former councillor and retired school librarian, concluded that Mansfield should take on some of the responsibility for a refugee crisis that at the time was dominating headlines across the UK and Europe. It was a moral imperative, she said.

“We are all living in one world, and we can’t allow some people to be treated in this way. We can’t just sit back and watch that happen and do nothing.”

Fahd Saleh, his wife Tahrir and their two sons Nour, 5 and Omar, 3 have resettled to Mansfield in the East Midlands.  © Paul Wu

She founded a small charity, Maun Refuge, in August 2015, and, drawing on her experience in local politics, drafted a motion to put before the local district council to sign up to the VPRS. The council supported her motion and by December four Syrian families, among them the Salehs, were relocated to Mansfield.

Then the hard work began. “We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for,” joked Nestor’s husband, Martin, one a of a core group of eight volunteering with Maun Refuge.

The charity at first supplemented the work of the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum, a larger charity that was tasked by Nottinghamshire County Council with supporting newly arrived Syrian refugees. Most of them were settled in the county’s largest city, Nottingham, some 15 miles from Mansfield.

Maun Refuge gradually took on a more active role in supporting the families in Mansfield. Volunteers helped procure white goods and furniture and offer support with the practicalities of everyday life. Now, after a small National Lottery grant, the charity is planning to help pay for more English language lessons for which there is a huge appetite among the Syrian refugee families.

With the help of 74 year-old Barbara Nestor who set up charity Maun Refuge, Fahd, his wife Tahrir are rebuilding their lives in Mansfield in the East Midlands.  © Paul Wu

Nestor also played an active role in trying to secure coaching and educational opportunities for Fahd, who once plied his trade as a goalkeeper with Syria’s al-Karamah club in his hometown of Homs and enjoyed stints with clubs in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

In September, he started a GCSE-equivalent Activity Leadership course at Vision West Nottinghamshire College, a coaching course he should finish in June with a National Vocational Qualification. There he has impressed with his energy and dedication.

Fahd carries a notebook in which he takes down new words, while the living room is adorned with a chart of English words and their Arabic translations

“He’s really motivated,” said Rachael Evans, his tutor. “He’s adapted very well. He wants to learn new things and is keen to make sure he gets everything right. I have no qualms about [his future], nothing really fazes him. And being a former pro also carries a bit of cache.”

Improving their language remains his and Tahrir’s priority for now. Fahd carries with him a notebook in which he takes down new words, while the living room is adorned with a chart of English words and their Arabic translations.

The living room wall is adorned with a chart of English words and their Arabic translations  © Paul Wu

Both said they want more than the twice-weekly lessons they are taking at the moment, yet their progress so far has nevertheless been impressive. Tahrir said when they arrived they knew only the “ABC and how to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’”. Now, Evans describes Fahd’s spoken English as “brilliant”, and the couple is doing everything in their power to soak up more.

Nour, 5, has started school and already speaks with a Mansfield accent

They are both volunteering, in a bid to improve their language and, they joked, keep up with their son Nour, 5, who has started school and already speaks with a Mansfield accent. Tahrir helps out at her youngest son Omar’s nursery, while Fahd coaches three classes at the Queen Elizabeth’s Academy.

The boys there certainly had no trouble understanding him and all seemed to relish a little bit of extra unplanned goalkeeping training on a recent Friday morning. Callum Fletcher, 14, said he enjoyed how Fahd had “experience to teach us new things.”

Fahd with his son Nour, 5. Nour has started school and already speaks with a Mansfield accent  © Paul Wu

Callum had not really made the connection with the Syrian refugees he said he had seen “a bit about” on TV, but then Fahd tends not to talk too much about his past. He fled Syria in 2012 and said he finds it too upsetting now to even follow the news from there. Two of his former teammates were killed in Syria’s conflict and most of his other former colleagues have, like him, fled the country.

His focus, he said, is on the future. He still looks back wistfully on his time with al-Karamah, one of Asia’s oldest sports clubs and a runner-up in the 2006 Asian Football Confederation’s Champion’s League. The club won the Syrian cup in 2010, Fahd saving two penalties in a shoot-out in the final.

Two of his former teammates were killed in Syria’s conflict and most of his other former colleagues have, like him, fled the country.

But even if Syria’s conflict ended today, he said, it would take ten years or more for the country to get back to normal. “I have young children. I am looking to a future as a coach. And I think here is opportunity.”

For principal Brothwell, that opportunity is just as much her school’s.

Fahd is volunteering teaching sports at the Queen Elizabeth's Academy whose director Helena Brothwell is excited about the potential for cultural and language exchange for both her students and Fahd himself.  © Paul Wu

“The opportunity to have someone come from any other country, but particularly Syria, to share that experience with the kids, be around them and help develop their skills is huge. And then obviously, he’s a professional footballer… how much more lucky does one get?”

Nestor, 74, has been putting in 40 hour-weeks with Maun Refuge. It has “been busy”, she conceded, but “probably the most rewarding thing I have ever done”. She also said she thought taking in refugees would be of benefit to Mansfield.

The opportunity to have someone come from any other country, but particularly Syria, to share that experience with the kids and help develop their skills is huge

“I think if people here see more ethnically diverse faces around the place, it’s less likely they be entrenched in attitudes that are ill-informed. People are very friendly and kind, so potentially it’s a very welcoming place.”

 

This story is part of a series exploring the ways people across the UK are showing refugees and asylum-seekers a #GreatBritishWelcome.