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A soccer team gives hope to refugees in Italy

The émigrés, many of whom fled persecution in their own lands, form the country’s first professional team made up entirely of refugees.

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Today Ibrahin shares a room with seven other people in a social-service center. He spends his days in a lawyer’s waiting room. Like the
others, his first request for asylum was rejected, and he is waiting for his appeal to be heard.

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Yet his options may be limited. Asylum laws have toughened in Italy under the Berlusconi government and anti-immigrant sentiment runs deep in some regions. In 2007, government territorial commissions examined 13,509 requests for asylum. Only 1,408 were granted.

As he struggles with the bureaucracy, Ibrahin finds that soccer keeps his mind off the painful separation from his family and his precarious immigration status. “In the Liberi Nantes, I found other guys that are in the same situation as me, with the same problems,” he says. “This has helped me a lot.”

Karim’s tale is no less woeful. In 2005, the Taliban killed his family, and American bombs, he says, destroyed his house in Afghanistan. To escape, Karim spent five days traveling through the Persian mountains in a truck packed cheek-by-rucksack with 50 people.

Karim doesn’t talk much. He has been in Italy for nine months and tells me that he was an expert shoemaker back in his home country.
He’s also good with his feet. A center-forward on the soccer team, he is agile, powerful, and has a howitzer for a left kick. At the moment, he is limping off the field, due to an overzealous tackle from a Sudanese midfielder. I compliment him on his game and something between a smile and expression of pain animates his face.

Like many others on the team, he lives in a social-service center, cannot find work, and would never consider going back to Afghanistan. “A puppet,” Karim says of Afghan president Hamid Karzi, “put in power by the Americans.”

Yet living under the Taliban was far worse. “They are like your mafia here in Italy,” he says, sitting on the edge of the field, resting his ankle. “They destroyed our fields, killed people, and stole what little we had.”

Mamadi, for his part, spent time in a prison in his home country of Guinea. He says authorities arrested and later tortured him for participating in a union protest. The soccer team here has been one of the few things that has buoyed his spirits.

Significantly, he noticed that when he first began to play on the team, the African and Afghan players stayed in their own cliques. He decided to start working out with the Afghans. The resulting change in chemistry, he says, was a “miracle.”

•••

Gianluca Di Girolami is an athletic man with a stern gaze. For years, he has belonged to an organization that works with refugees in Italy. He’s also always been an avid soccer fan. In July 2007, he decided to combine his two passions: He formed the Liberi Nantes Football Club.

Mr. Di Girolami noticed how many refugees were members of their national teams back home. “If we offer these people a warm meal and a place to sleep without giving them the possibility to have fun, we have only done a halfway job,” he says. “We want to give their lives a little bit of normalcy.”

The team trains three times a week, plus plays a weekly match. It wins some games and loses others.

Money for the team comes from charitable organizations. Although the players aren’t paid, they do receive uniforms and help with travel expenses. Di Girolami has bought 25 soccer balls with his own eruos.

As today’s practice ends, Karim remains on the field. The others have scampered off to celebrate the arrival of their new uniforms.

Tomorrow morning, Karim will wake up and look for work yet again, and, in the coming months, the Italian authorities will examine his appeal. Someone runs up to him smiling and shows him his new uniform – No. 9.

Who knows if he will be able to stay long enough to wear it.

“We are actually starting the season with two-thirds of the original team,” says Mr. Gualerzi, the coach. “Some of them have disappeared, others have been sent back home, and some players have been moved to other welcoming centers far away from Rome.”

Still, those who remain take solace in banana kicks and a sense of brotherhood. “We will continue forward,” says Di Girolami. They, too, should be given the right to play.”

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