“Sport is a great way to integrate, build a connection and make friends”
Second Chances: Moudi’s story of finding refuge in Denmark is one of pursuing dreams, finding courage, having perseverance, and keeping hope.
“Second Chances – Refugee Voices in Denmark” is a series of portraits of refugees who have found protection in Denmark and have had the opportunity to rebuild their lives here. The portraits tell stories of struggle and resilience. Of determination and hope. Join these people as they trace their journeys to Denmark from different war-torn countries and reflect on their path back to normality in their new home Denmark.
Moudi grew up in Damascus, Syria with his parents and three siblings. He was a talented young basketball player and played professionally. He had a good income, close friends, and a nice life.
“Of course Syria was a great place, and I love it more than anything. The country used to be very safe. Once the war started Syria became a very different country.”
His family stayed, thinking the situation would improve. They could hear the fighting, but it was not in their neighborhood. That all changed in a night.
“Once the war started Syria became a very different country.”
“The war zone started getting closer to the neighborhood I lived in and the bombs were very close to our house. After that my mom said we have to leave. We started packing our things and other people around us did too. It was a crazy night. There was a lot of fighting happening outside. We could hear the bullets. We could hear the bombs. We could hear everything happening outside.
We were all sitting in one room trying to cover ourselves, hoping that it wouldn’t come to our house. The next morning when my uncle opened the door to check what was happening, the street was full of dead bodies. It was like a carpet of dead bodies. This was the moment when everyone said we could not stay here anymore.
I didn’t really want to leave because I was still playing basketball and getting money and my life, my friends and everybody was there. I was 19 ½. But it was too much to handle after seeing that. We booked a flight out to Egypt that day. We packed as much as we could and left.”
The family left thinking the situation would calm down and they would return, but it just continued to get worse.
“A lot of people died. I lost five friends, two of them were my teammates. One of my friends had an opinion and got shot because of it. It was scary to stay there because nobody was safe.”
A Perilous Journey
From Egypt, Moudi made the decision to travel alone to Europe, looking for a safe place to find opportunity and make a new start.
“They took us far away to an empty area at night, close to Libya, to the sea. We met about 300 people there. It was dark and we had to walk and hide. We had to run and swim to a small rubber boat that took us out to the big fishing boat … We travelled almost all the way to Greece, but then they told us we had to go back to Egypt pick up other people. It was very dangerous to go back because we had left the country, so we were now entering Egypt illegally. We had to do this every night, and after seven days the boat was running out of gas. At that point, the fishermen were threatening us to throw us in the sea because they could not go back with us and they didn’t have gas to go to Greece.”
“Thankfully, another fishing boat was sent in the nighttime to take us. Even though the boats were close, it was very wavy and they were going up and down so you had to jump carefully. I was fourth to go and I was so scared when I looked down. I will never forget that jump. I thought I would never make it. I remember, one of my feet touched the other boat and a guy grabbed me and hugged me and threw me on the deck. Every time someone else made it on the boat we hugged them because it was such a scary moment. Then they sent us below deck on the boat while we waited for other people to come. We stayed there for two days.
“We had a total of 320 people on the boat when we arrived in Italy, according to the Red Cross. On the boat, I was given the role of dividing the water all around so everyone had an equal amount. If the water ran out we would die. We each had half a cup to drink daily, although some of it tasted like gasoline from the containers it was kept in.”
Finding Safety in Denmark
In total, Moudi’s trip across the sea took 20 days. After reaching Italy, he came by plane to Denmark.
“I never regret the decision to come here. I had learned about Denmark in school in Syria growing up. I was always hoping one day in my life I could visit Denmark because you hear it’s the happiest country in the world, and it’s a good place to live. I knew people here are having a good life, so I was thinking, ‘I want to be a part of this community.’ I got asylum and refugee status five months after I arrived.”
“When I came to Copenhagen I knew right away that this was my town. My mother would say that, ‘Everything has a reason,’ and now I believe so too.”
To this day, it would be very dangerous for Moudi to return to Syria because he has a mandatory military commitment that he would have to fulfill:
“I didn’t want to be part of the conflict at all. And I don’t want to fight someone from my own country. Of course, I wanted to go back to visit my friends, but the moment I would step inside the airport I would be taken.”
One day, Moudi passed by a school in the city where he had been placed by the Danish authorities when given refugee status, and thought about offering his skills as a basketball coach. It was the week before school started in August, he went in and met a teacher who took him straight to the school director.
“She listened to my story, and I was given a coaching job immediately. Integration could not have been better than being part of the teachers’ team, speaking in Danish, and working with Danish kids. There was no better way to start understanding this new culture.”
After six months, Moudi was offered a job at a Copenhagen basketball team. He agreed and now lives in Østerbro.
“When I came to Copenhagen I knew right away that this was my town. I have played basketball for two years, have been coaching kids, and started my studies in business and tourism. My mother would say that, ‘Everything has a reason,’ and now I believe so too.
If you have the mentality to say, ‘I can do it’, Copenhagen is the best place in the world, I think, to actually do it.”
Moudi is very grateful to be living in Denmark today.
“Denmark has given me so much by giving me the chance to live here. I feel like now I have a base where I belong. I’m also getting an education, which is another benefit of living here. The rest is up to me. I like the simple lifestyle in Denmark. People don’t judge each other here. I can work any job I want, and people will never talk down to me. A general manager and a cleaner will be treated the same way. People just want to live life, so everyone can be what they want to be. That’s what I love most about Denmark. It’s a good place.”
Although he cannot play professionally anymore, basketball continues to be a big part of Moudi’s life. He has a part time job coaching kids between 6-11 years old in basketball.
“Basketball was the main reason I moved to Copenhagen. It saved my life, I can say. In general, I think sport is a great way to integrate and build a connection, make friends, make new teammates. But I could have never have predicted that it would help me so much, with integrating, finding a new me, and being accepted.
I still have my basketball jerseys from Damascus … They are very important to me. I’ve been collecting them since I was six or seven years old, and I have one from my Dad that was a gift to me in 8th grade. I took them when I left Syria in 2013. They are the only things I took with me.”
"I still have my basketball jerseys from Damascus..."
"... They are the only things I took with me." ©Sasja van Vechgel
Moudi recognizes that his dreams have shifted due to his circumstances and time.
“What I want now is to have a good career, to provide a good living for myself and for my family, if I will get a family soon. We’ll see. Ten years ago, the only thing I wanted to do was to be a great professional basketball player. But now, it’s not possible. Maybe I can coach bigger teams at a high level in the future.”
The journey that Moudi has endured – from a warzone, across an ocean, and starting over alone in a new country – is one that he hopes can inspire others:
“It’s hard to keep telling my story, but the more I talk about it the easier it gets, and maybe it will help other people. What I’ve been through in Syria, how I came to Denmark, adjusting to life here … it is always there in my head. The bad things pop up, but I try to overcome them as much as I can. I think about where I am now and try to be happy and grateful. I try to make myself live in the moment. When bad times come, I remind myself how I overcame the bad times in the past.”
The portrait series “Second Chances – Refugee Voices in Denmark” is produced by Amy Cunningham and Sasja van Vechgel for UNHCR Regional Representation for Northern Europe.
Amy Cunningham is an American freelance writer who focuses on telling human stories to foster empathy, expand understanding, and cultivate connections. She strives to give the subjects of her stories their own unique voice, empowering them to link us all in new capacities. Her love of travel and exploring different cultures has led her to meet diverse people from around the world, each with their special story to share.
Sasja van Vechgel is a dutch photographer, born in the Netherlands in 1975, known for de-stigmatizing her subjects, humanizing people again. Her work is characterized by a combination of social documentary photography, often focused on human rights and health issues with an artsy flavor. She has been living and working in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia and Denmark for the past 18 years, which has resulted in a variety of assignments for multinationals and NGOs, international awards and exhibitions.