The Syrian Civil War is one of the bloodiest
wars of this decade. More than 465,000 people were killed. Over a million were injured.
North of 12 million were displaced. It started with a few protestors against the
Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad. The death toll has since extended to civilians,
children, the sick, vulnerable and normal people of Syria. From offices to outbacks,
schools to shopping centres, Syrians have been forced to flee. In fact, it is estimated that almost half
of Syria’s pre-war population is displaced. A hopeless situation now fracturing throughout
the world. And yet, through it all, football has played
its part. Ahmad Al Rashid was a typical Syrian. He studied
English literature. He lived in a small town near the capital, Aleppo. He loved football.
But then, in a sudden moment, his life was altered forever. Radical Muslim groups, led by ISIS, began
to lay siege to his town. After just two weeks, the resistance faltered. The radical groups
captured the young men who were fighting against them, hauled them into the central square
of the town, and in front of their wives and children, beheaded them, erecting their heads
onto poles throughout the town as a sign of what would happen if you resisted. It was at this point that Ahmad, who was publicly
criticising ISIS’ actions on social media, realised he must flee. He started his journey.
55 days later, he was in the United Kingdom, hoping for a chance at a new life. But that
hadn’t been the initial plan. Being Kurdish, Ahmad fled to the Iraqi border.
After being picked up in a truck by the Iraqi government, he would end up in a refugee camp
in Mosul. Initially, he said it was for a few weeks, just while the conflict passes.
Then he would return. Nearly seven years later, he has not seen his home again. ISIS came to Mosul. In one night, the city
fell. Thousands were slaughtered. Suddenly, Ahmad was on the run once more. He recognised
that he would never be safe in the Middle East. If ISIS were to ever capture him, they
would behead him without hesitation. He needed to not only flee Syria; he had to flee the
Middle East entirely. And so, with one friend, he headed west. First, he walked to Turkey, slipping through
the ISIS grasp once again. Eventually, he made it to Izmir, on the Western coast of
Turkey, the gateway to Europe for many Syrian refugees. Ahmad had a plan: to get to England. It was at this time that he would begin to
dream of his life in England. Football dominated those dreams. He began to fantasize about
kicking a ball on English soil, about being in the same country as the great Premier League,
about maybe going to see Arsenal, standing at the Emirates stadium, watching his heroes
step out of the tunnel. This was his enduring, undying hope. Ahmad twice attempted to get to Athens. He
paid smugglers to ship him, on a dinghy, across the Aegean Sea. The first time he was caught
by the police and returned to Turkey. The second time, they made it. They shipped him
to the Greek island of Chios, the dinghy having sunk minutes before reaching the shore, Ahmad
swimming the final few metres. From Chios, he was shipped to Athens by the Greek officials
and given six months to leave the country or return to Syria. In Athens, Ahmad bought a Bulgarian passport
from a smuggler. The smuggler told him to go to the airport with the passport and boarding
pass, get on a flight to Marseille, telling him which security officials to hand his documents
to and which to avoid entirely, otherwise he would be captured and sent back to Syria,
the passport destroyed and his money long gone. In the airport, Ahmad sat nervously, waiting
for the plane. A number of immigrants were picked up by the officials while he was waiting.
Then, someone tapped him on the shoulder. They asked for his passport. Questioning where
he was flying to and why he was flying there, Ahamd hurriedly invented a story involving
a girlfriend and their anniversary. The official returned his passport, said, ‘enjoy your
trip’ and moved on. Ahmad’s heart continued to beat. With these documents, he flew to Marseille,
in the south of France. From Marseille, he travelled by train, north, eventually reaching
Calais. It was in Calais that this Emirates dream suddenly became a genuine possibility.
He was within touching distance of England. But the most difficult period of his journey
was still to come. After spending almost two weeks in the Calais Jungle, a mire of crime,
abuse, murder, exploitation, and unadulterated, ferocious poverty, Ahmad did what any desperate
person would do: he put his life in the hands of criminals. Stepping into the back of a lorry, not knowing
if he would ever see the sun again, after several attempts, he made it to England. Three
days passed. He and the others he was with in the lorry sat in a container, similar to
that in which 39 dead bodies were discovered in in 2019. Suffocating as he was squashed
against the other fleeing refugees, eventually, someone came to open the doors. He was in
Hull. Ahmad would eventually settle in Middlesbrough.
He was granted refugee status after three months which allowed him to fly his family
over from Syria. He later moved to London. And in London, that insatiable, undying dream
came true. Arsenal. At the Emirates. Football. His hope realised. He would meet his heroes. He shook hands with
Arsene Wenger. He took photos with Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Per Mertesacker and Petr Cech.
He watched his Arsenal play at the Emirates Stadium, celebrating a new life. Ahmad survived a horrific journey that many
have died on when undertaking. He was the fortunate one. And amidst all the heartache
and pain, all the death and destruction, all the exploitation and crime, the hope of a
future remained.