Here’s the scene: It’s August 3, 2019, and I’m playing in a football tournament in a place called Bute Park, in Cardiff, Wales. I’m 22 years old, running around the pitch in brand new trainers and sweating through a uniform with my name on the back. Loads of fans erupt in cheers when I score a goal! And then I hear one of them yell, “You just scored the best goal of the entire tournament!”
If you’d described that scene to 10-year-old Muj, he’d have believed it. He probably would also have thought he was playing in the Premier League. And even though 10-year-old Muj would’ve just been learning the game of football on a field in Yemen with his friends, he’d still have believed it because his dream always was to become a famous footballer.
But let’s say you describe that same scene to 16-year-old Muj. He wouldn’t have believed it one bit. To be blunt, he would’ve said something like, “Really? You mean I didn’t die?”
I’m probably not the only player from the 2019 Homeless World Cup who could say something like that. For each and every one of us, there were real reasons why we should not have been on that pitch last August. Five hundred players from 50 different countries played in the tournament. And I really do believe that each and every one of them has a story to tell.
For now, I’m going to tell you mine.
It starts at my childhood house in 2014.
One day I heard pounding on the front door that filled me with terror. I knew in my gut it was trouble. My father wasn’t at home, so I knew that that meant I was the man of the house. And I had to be the one to answer it.
I opened the door and two men with big guns slung across their bodies stood in front of me. You might be surprised, but it wasn’t really the guns that scared me. In Yemen, a lot of people carry guns because of the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims — there is a lot of fighting. My family is Sunni.
I was scared because I knew who these men were. I could tell by their clothing and military guns that they were members of the Houthi, a Shia tribe that had recently gained a lot of power in the country — and had been causing a lot of trouble for Sunnis in my village, Dammaj.You might be surprised, but it wasn’t really the guns that scared me.
They stood tall and kept their hands ready on their guns. “Where is your father?” one of them said.
I didn’t know what to say.
My father hadn’t been around all that much for several weeks. He was a sheikh, which in Yemen meant that he was an important man. He would sometimes communicate with the president, and when he spoke, people listened. He was also involved in the efforts to end the fighting in Yemen.
I knew I had to be strong because my mother, my four little brothers and my two little sisters were inside. The only thing standing between them and the men with the guns was me, a 15-year-old boy.
Courtesy of Mujahed Aqlan
I kept telling myself the same things over and over again in my head.
Act like a man. Do not show any weakness. Act like a man.
I looked the Houthi soldier in the eye and even puffed out my chest a little. “My father is not home,” I said. “And you are not going to come in. My family is inside.”
The soldiers stared at me. They didn’t believe my father wasn’t in the home. And then, without warning, they raised their weapons and fired.
Their bullets whizzed past my head and into the house.
But I was still there standing. Breathing. And no one in my home had been hit.
For some reason, they were there to scare us, not kill us.
“Listen,” one of the men said as he took a step toward me. “We will kill you and your family if your father doesn’t return home soon.”
I nodded, praying they would leave. After a moment, they turned and walked away. I watched them until I was sure they were gone for good. And then I waited a little longer — to catch my breath — before returning inside to my family.
After that, my father made sure government bodyguards were with us at all times. But in a way, it was already too late. There was a target on my back just because I was the oldest son in a Sunni family. Some of my friends — boys my age — had been killed for that very reason.
I used to think about the day I would have to leave my family, maybe to play for a football club in the U.K., or to attend university, like most kids do. But nothing could have prepared me for the day I actually had to leave Yemen. I wasn’t ready to leave my family. Not at 15 years old. But about a month after my run-in with the soldiers at my door, the adults in my family came to the decision that it was too dangerous for me to stay.
Not long after, one of my father’s bodyguards hurried me onto a plane headed for Turkey, where my parents told me I’d stay until my family could come for me. I don’t remember the last words I said to them, or even what I packed in the one bag I brought with me. I do remember feeling utterly helpless. And I remember looking out the window of the plane and quietly crying the whole way to Turkey.
Once we landed, the bodyguard gave me some money from my family and introduced me to some of his friends so I wouldn’t be completely alone when he went back to Yemen. His friends were good people and in the same situation as me … alone and on the run from some dangerous place.
They had no money and no clear idea of what would happen to them the next day. They prayed for safety and hoped for a normal life again.
They were refugees.
Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
We slept out in the grass most nights. Every time I came close to falling asleep, though, thoughts of my family would keep me awake. It wasn’t like I’d wake up from a bad dream about them. I was kept up by my own real thoughts about real things that could be happening to them.
Every couple of days I called different numbers I knew — of family members and friends in Yemen — just praying someone would answer. But it was difficult to reach people. Internet and phone service weren’t readily available.
I couldn’t help but think the worst.
After five months of getting by in Turkey, my prayers to speak to my father were answered. He called.
The call was short, but just hearing his voice made me smile for a moment. He told me to worry only about myself, not my family — to stay safe and find a way to get an education.
I wanted to hear him say that everything was going to be O.K., that our family was going to be together again soon. But it was like my father said something without saying it. After that call, I got this gut feeling I was going to be alone for a long time.
The day after we spoke, I tried to call him back at the same number he had used to reach me.
Everybody I knew in Turkey began leaving, almost all with the hope of eventually reaching the U.K., where there was supposedly opportunity for a better life. So I made the U.K. my goal, too. I had just enough money left to eat each day. Every new town or city I reached, I slept outside or stopped in refugee camps for a few days at a time. I began my journey to the U.K. by first following my friends to Greece.
Greece was terrible because there was no work and the government wasn’t giving any assistance to refugees. People begged on the street, and some were even eating from trash bins. I knew I had to leave Greece as soon as possible, and the only way to do that was by lorry.
Lorries are these big trucks that move from the road, onto a ship, and back onto a road in a new country. Many people in my situation travel this way, but it’s dangerous.
You can get inside the lorry’s shipping container with all the stuff, but you are likely to get caught there at police checkpoints, or when the driver makes a stop.
I hid in a spot that might seem impossible. You know the metal rod that connects a wheel on the right side of a truck to the wheel on the left side of the truck, the axle?
Well, that’s where I hid. The wheels are huge, so the rod is thick. You can actually squeeze in there. I felt like I could do it because I had watched other people do it over and over again. But I also knew my body would only be maybe half a meter from the ground as the truck drove along the road.
The day I left, I gave all my belongings away to other refugees. I changed into all-black clothing and waited on the side of the road near a traffic light.
It was the middle of the day, which wasn’t great for hiding, but that was when the lorries heading for Italy always arrived to this port.
When I saw a lorry slow down to a red light, I ran to it. I had to avoid being seen in any of the driver’s mirrors.
I reached the truck and crawled under, sliding my body up and onto the axle. After a few seconds, when the light turned green again, the lorry drove off with me hidden underneath.
I think it was probably around midnight when the lorry finally reached Italy. At first I was overjoyed. A wave of relief passed through my body.
But right before the lorry was going to move off of the boat, the driver crouched down to check for refugees.
He spotted me.
I stayed very still and didn’t speak.
I knew how these situations usually played out. He would either demand all of my money or tell the police to send me back to Greece.
But then something unbelievable happened. The man looked at me and … for some reason that only God knows … he didn’t say anything. He looked at me and then around the area on the dock. He was quietly motioning something to me. He was trying to show me, You can go now if you want to.
I couldn’t believe this … he was letting me go.
But I was still too scared to get off near the harbour because I knew I could get caught by someone else, so I decided to stay underneath the lorry as it would be driven further into Italy.
My body was shaking. So tired. No food. No nothing. I seriously thought I was going to have to let go … like really let go … because the vibration of the engine made it hard to hold on. The driver finally pulled off the highway at a rest stop after about 30 minutes.
I let my body drop to the ground and I swear the pavement felt like a cloud for a minute. That’s how it went, in these cycles of extreme pressure and quiet moments of relief. You never felt safe, or comfortable, or truly happy … even when you reached the place you wanted to be.
A few weeks later, when I got off another lorry — the last one I ever stole away on — I wanted to be happy because I had made it to the U.K. I saw other refugees crying tears of happiness. But I was just thinking about my family. Almost a year had passed and I still hadn’t heard anything from them.
A few different refugee camps in the U.K. took me in before, eventually, I was sent to a more permanent setup in Wales. The day I arrived, a nonprofit organization called United Welsh put me up in a flat with a roommate. I couldn’t believe that what I’d heard about the U.K. was actually true. I’m not sure if I just got lucky, but being sent to Wales was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
Courtesy of Mujahed Aqlan
It didn’t take long for me to find a way to play football in my new home.
Immediately I realized that when I play football … I don’t think about my family.
Right now, that’s actually the best thing about the sport.
It sounds like a bad thing to not think about your family, right? But until I started playing again I could not get one moment of peace. You know when you’re thinking and thinking and thinking so much that you’re just overthinking? That was me every day since I’d left Yemen.
I think every person who plays football knows what happens when you step out on the pitch. Everything disappears for a while.
Paul John Roberts
Now, four years after I arrived in Wales, I’m 22 and play football all the time on different teams near where I live in Cardiff.
I want to get back to that scene I mentioned in the beginning.
Early in 2019 a friend of mine suggested that I try out for something called the Homeless World Cup. I qualified for the tryout because I was an asylum-seeker.
I didn’t know anything about it, but I wasn’t going to say no to playing football. Soon after my tryout, I found out I had made the Welsh team. My friends were so excited for me, but I was thinking, O.K. … cool, I guess? I still didn’t know what the whole thing was.
But eventually someone from the tournament showed me a schedule and explained all the details.
The Homeless World Cup is a football tournament that is sort of exactly what it sounds like. It’s for people who have gone through some pretty tough times. You don’t have to be a stellar athlete to play. It’s more about getting out on the pitch and being part of a team, even if football isn’t your thing.
The Cup has been held every year since 2003. And this past year, the year I played, the Cup happened to be hosted in my home city of Cardiff.
They gave us new clothes and shoes for training, and the media came out to our practices to talk to us. As the tournament drew closer, the organizers started hanging banners and setting up fields in Bute Park. It all felt so polished and … real, which kind of made it all feel like a dream. Does that make sense?
I just felt so happy that I had been picked to represent Wales. My teammates and the media kept saying “our country” and “our home.” Everybody knew I was from Yemen, but they still treated me like a Welshman … and I felt a big responsibility because of that. Putting on that shirt, I felt like I had to do something special for all the people who were supporting our team.Putting on that shirt, I felt like I had to do something special for all the people who were supporting our team.
You can only really understand how special the Homeless World Cup is when the week arrives.
It’s a huge competition, yeah, but all the players hang out and talk together no matter what team they’re on. I spoke with Egypt’s team in Arabic (my native language), and met Americans for the first time. I swear every person had a smile on their face. I was shocked to see just how many people from Cardiff came to support us. The stands were full of cheering fans.
The whole experience just made me think, This is my home. These people are my family. I am just so lucky the Homeless World Cup was here because you can only play once.
And I played in Wales.
Just before the tournament, something amazing happened. Someone in Yemen contacted me on Facebook. They wrote, “Muj, your family is safe. They escaped to Saudi Arabia.”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I needed to know more, but this guy doesn’t use Facebook much so he just left me with that one message for a few days. I sent him so many messages! I seriously waited on Facebook to see that little green dot appear by his name. Finally, the dot appeared and he answered.
I sent him my phone number and he passed it on to my family. When my mother called me that first time … oh my God, I was so shocked that I couldn’t even speak.
You know when you haven’t spoken with someone in so long that you’re nervous to actually talk to them? There ends up being long moments of silence even though there’s so much you want to say. It’s hard to know where to even begin when you miss people as much as I missed my family.
I really thought they had been killed. They really thought I had been killed. So hearing my mother say my name that first time on the phone … it overwhelmed me. I could hear her crying on the other end.
There weren’t a lot of words spoken on that first phone call. I’ll never forget it, though. It was proof that we had all survived.
I began talking to my family on the phone on a regular basis. I told them about my life and the Homeless World Cup, which was coming up. They were able to see all of the media online, and they actually saw me play in the tournament through videos on the Internet. It must have been so weird for them to see me. I look a lot different than the 15-year-old who’d got on that plane all those years ago.
Even though Wales is so welcoming to refugees, it’s still hard to get a visa. I’d tried and failed many times before last December, when I finally succeeded.
The first thing I did once I got my visa was enroll in business classes. I’m thinking of starting a tourism business in Cardiff so I can show people all the best spots in this beautiful city.
Originally, I wanted to tell my story for all the players preparing for the 2020 Homeless World Cup, but the tournament has been canceled due to everything going on with the coronavirus pandemic. It’ll be the first year since 2003 that the event hasn’t happened. I hope all the players get a chance to read this, and that it inspires them for next year’s tournament. I know football isn’t the most important thing right now, but it does change lives — so hang in there, guys.
It’s been five years since I’ve seen any of my family.
Each month I get a little bit of money from the government, and I’m close to getting a part-time job so I can work at the same time I’m attending classes. I’ve been saving as much as I can with the hope of visiting my family soon. And then when I finally do get to see them … I will be excited for something really special. Not only did my family survive, but we also grew. I’ll get to meet my two new little sisters for the first time ever.
See you soon, Wateen and Joud.