Young Syrian footballer aims high in Germany
A wide, gappy grin spreads over Ahmad Alzaher's youthful face. He gazes at his father, Mohammed, who is kneeling on the pitch nearby, a water bottle balanced precariously atop his head. Ahmad steps back, then runs full pelt at the football in front of him, launching it with his powerful left foot towards his father's face.
The curious German girls on the sidelines gasp and wince for a moment as the ball hurtles through the air. Then, they erupt in cheers as the ball hits the bottle, toppling it from the man's head with a thwack. Ahmad breaks into a celebratory run, skids to a halt and throws his hands over his head in a Cristiano Ronaldo-style spinning jump.
The neat trick is just one of many the father and son practice together every afternoon after school. They both have high hopes that one day their hard work will pay off and Ahmad's skills will catch the eye of a big European club.
"My favourite player is Cristiano Ronaldo, because he's the best and the fastest," Ahmad tells UNHCR, referring to Portugal's most famous professional footballer. "I'm fast too. My dream is to meet Ronaldo one day and play football with him."
"We're both really looking forward to the Euros," says his father. "We'll be supporting Germany. It'll be hard for them, but we believe in Germany, that the national team can win it. The best thing about football and this year's Euros in particular is that it's a game that brings people together. For ninety minutes, everyone's together, regardless of ideology, religion or culture."
"The Euros are just like the World Cup," adds Ahmad. "Just as important, just as amazing and interesting."
"We'll be supporting Germany... We believe in Germany, that the national team can win it."
It was Ahmad's dreams of greatness that pushed his father, a former goalkeeper, to flee his home in Jableh, a coastal city in north-western Syria. "I left for Ahmad," says 39-year-old Mohammed. "When the war came I realised there was no future for him in Syria. I didn't know how long it would all last. He was going to be a sportsman and there would be nothing for him. I thought, he has such a talent, he needs proper training."
Mohammed says his whole world changed when Ahmad was born – and the little boy's gift was clear from the moment he could stand.
"Ahmad started playing football when he started walking," he says. "I noticed very early on that he loved the game and felt at home at the football pitch. He wasn't like the other kids when it came to football. He wanted to kick and score goals, he simply played."
One day, when Ahmad was just two years old, Mohammed took him to a Syrian league game. To the crowd's astonishment, Ahmad waddled onto the pitch and started showing his tricks. "Everyone was so excited and impressed with him," his father recalls. "The biggest Syrian players expected a wonderful future on the international stage for him."
But as the years went by and his country descended into war, Mohammed began losing hope that things would ever return to normal. "I see news from Syria and my heart bleeds," he says. "God willing, this hardship will end and Syria will heal. All Syrians are my brothers and sisters. I pray that things will improve for my country."
Last October, Mohammed, his wife Afaf and sister Zahra decided to take Ahmad to Lebanon and on to Turkey. He borrowed money to pay the smugglers, but all the currency in the world wouldn't have got them onto a safe crossing to Greece. Like so many others, their flimsy boat failed them midway across the Aegean Sea.
"I pray that things will improve for my country.”
"We were half way across when the engine died," Mohammed remembers. "We tried to carry on but the boat took on water. Then, a little way off the Greek coast, we started to sink. For a while, I thought we were lost. But there was a boat ahead of us full of refugees. They came back to help us and we all made it to land. I still can't believe we made it, that we all survived sinking into the sea."
In Greece, Ahmad and his family followed the Western Balkans route, skirting Hungary into Slovenia and on to Austria. In early November, they were met by policemen while crossing the German border on foot and put on a bus to a shelter in Potsdam, a city south-west of Berlin.
"We didn't know where we were going. We just knew we had get to a better place," says Mohammed. "After a journey like that, it was incredible to arrive. I was so relieved. I had hardly slept for 15 days, staying awake while the others slept to keep watch over them. I was afraid for my son all the time. When we arrived I realised: Yes, now I'm safe, my family is safe."
Ahmad and his family now have refugee status in Germany. In January, they moved into a rented three-bedroom apartment in Potsdam. The little boy is thriving in his new surroundings, doing well at school and playing in a children’s football team. It is harder for the adults. Mohammed is learning German, while Ahmad's 29-year-old Aunt Zahra is re-training, hoping to continue her previous work as a primary school teacher.
"In Germany, it’s a new life," says Mohammed. "You have to get accustomed to it and you need to rebuIld your life all over again."
"I'm learning German quickly, but the adults are slow," adds Ahmad. "Sometimes my family speaks Arabic to me and I speak German to them and they don't know what I'm saying. I like school. Sport and German are my favourite subjects. My German teacher makes it very easy and fun to learn, we learn how to make things and draw pictures. He's pleased with me because I already know how to write a bit."
Ahmad appears unfazed that there are no other Syrian children at his school – his football skills have already made him popular. "All the children in my class are my friends," he says. "Everything's new here. I think about going to Syria. To see my home, to play with my friends and then go back to Germany. I wish the children in Syria that they are happy and safe. I play football every day and that makes me happy."