Soccer helping Syrians to integrate in Limerick

Céad Míle Fáilte for refugee boys in sporting community

Fintan Walsh


Fintan Walsh

Soccer helping Syrians to integrate in Limerick

Syrian boys Mohammad, 5, and Mahmood, 12 with FAI’s Jason O’Connor Picture: Michael Cowhey

AS SIGNS of success continue to show for the Syrian resettlement programme for more than 50 refugees in the city and county, two young boys have integrated into local life through their love for soccer.

Mahmood Ibrahim, 12, and Mohammad Riad Hassan Hamza, 5, fled from war-torn Syria with their families two years ago and took refuge in Limerick last summer.

As a result of the resettlement programme — which will be bringing in an additional 25 refugees in the coming weeks — the two boys now have a quality of life that had been taken from them by civil conflict, terrorism and warfare on their doorsteps in Syria.

And after settling into their first Irish school, Scoil Mhathair Dé in the city, their love for soccer has been rekindled, thanks to the FAI’s after-school programme.

Through this, Mahmood and Mohammad are now members of Janesboro Football Club.

During an after-school session, FAI regional development officer Jason O’Connor spotted the potential in the boys, and arranged a meeting with Janesboro head coach Tony O’Grady immediately.

“We are using football as a medium to integrate them into society in Limerick. And through this, we came across Mahmood and Mohammad. And in total, including youths from Afghanistan, six have signed with Janesboro since,” he told the Leader.

Tony, who has been coaching Janesboro underage and minors for six years, said that the tranche of newcomers impressed the local lads with their skills during an ice-breaker game.

“When I took the six lads down, and I said to the boys: ‘Alright, lads, let’s have a game. We will have the Afghan lads and the Syrian boys against your side - pick your six.’ And the Syrian side beat them comfortably. And after that, I said to the kids, ‘Who wants to go with the Syrian boys, now?’ And all of them put their hands up. They knew they could play, and they all immediately got on well together.”

The boys from the Middle-East have a different culture of playing the game, he said.

“At a younger age, the boys are more inclined to hit it and hope for it. But these fellas are a lot more technical, a lot more stronger and a lot bigger, physically- and ability-wise. And they do seem to be a year ahead of our own players. With some of the other fellas, they can get nervous when it comes to gameplay, but the Syrian lads don’t get nervous.  Mahmood is so talented that he is playing a year above his own age,” he said.

And one of the traits that Tony found admirable was their gentlemanly manners.

“At the start, they were calling me ‘sir’,” he laughs, “And I said to them: ‘Lads, I am not in the army. Don’t call me sir or coach; call me Tony. I am your friend.’ And they replied to me: ‘We are doing it to show you respect.’”

Jason said that the clubmates “100% understand” the trauma they endured for many years in Syria. Last month, Mahmood’s brother Moustafa and mother Khazouna spoke to the Limerick Leader about how they were forced to flee Aleppo because of Isis terror attacks.

Mahmood’s uncle was tragically killed by foreign air strikes, and two cousins were killed by president Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and Isis.

“Once you put on the jersey, your background is forgotten.”

This is because Janesboro FC actively engages with the annual Fare (Football Against Racism Europe] Week — a Uefa initiative that promotes anti-prejudice and anti-racism to young footballers.

And because Tony has a seven-seater, he makes a slight detour before training to collect the aspiring footballers, and is always warmly greeted by Mahmood’s proud mother.

“Every morning when I see her, she hugs me at the door, and she is delighted to see that he is getting involved in sport, and getting involved in the community. His brothers, also, come down to watch him play.”

Jason said that coaches Tony O’Grady and Mark Sugrue “always go the extra mile. They go above and beyond for them, and that is what’s expected, really, because they really go out of their way for the young lads.” Not only has sport improved their confidence, Mahmood and Mohammad have made new friends, and are showing clear signs of improvement in the classroom, Jason added. 

“Their confidence has improved an awful lot. And the principal confirmed that that is both in and out of the class. It’s not just out on the pitch, and that’s definitely a result of the programme.”

Principal Geraldine Ui Chathasaigh said that she is “delighted” with their progress in school. The Syrian resettlement programme commenced in May 2016, and is locally being facilitated by Limerick City and County Council and 11 other agencies.