The warmth of football

Text: Laure Derenne - Photography: Frederic Pauwels

Abdou arrived in Belgium on a freezing winter day. Since then, he has learned to counter the cold. On the football fields or as a future nurse, this young man always manages to warm hearts.

5 March 2020. The P4 team braves the elements. They don't yet know these will be their last moments on the pitch before a long lockdown.

December 2018. Abdou remembers his arrival in Brussels in the snow. In the "Petit-Château" reception center for asylum seekers, the first links are forged. One day, Samir and Benjamin arrive to present the “We Welcome Young Refugees” project: those who wish can come and play football with the Kraainem teams.

The young Chadian seizes the opportunity. He quickly becomes “friends with the entire P4 team. He is at all training sessions and matches, everyone knows him,” says Sandra, who manages the FC Kraainem refreshment bar.

Unfortunately, restrictions and social distancing then take over our lives. The season passes, the grounds remain empty. Abdou nostalgically watches videos on his phone. In one of them, the whole team can be seen celebrating a victory with a South African chant. They dance, they shout with joy. The rhythm is marked by the clicking of shin guards, used as percussion instruments.

5 March 2020. A true fun-maker, Mehdi grabs Abdou and makes everyone laugh. For Abdou, the pleasure of meeting up and playing together compensates for the winter cold. He has found real friends at FC Kraainem.

4 October 2020. Abdou has just played the first half of a game against Zaventem, but has been substituted for the second half. It’s a disappointment, especially as the opponents equalise very quickly in the second half.

Learning to take care in the midst of a pandemic

While waiting to get back to the atmosphere of the P4 team, Abdou continues his sixth year of secondary school. A teacher referred him to the “family support” option : « There are a lot of work opportunities. Many people need support and since you like to help people… ».

In the midst of the pandemic, the student completed three internships, in a specialised school and in two nursing homes. His latest evaluation says a lot about his relations with others: 92%. Writing his findings in his internship diary, Abdou recalls the laughter at Bingo, the confidences of the elderly, and the fact that « they take care of me as much as I take care of them ».

May 2021. Abdou prays, as every day. The end of Ramadan is approaching. Even though it can be physically hard at times, it is an opportunity to connect even more deeply to the values that drive Abdou: connection to others, solidarity, listening and respect.

Football, a field of possibilities

Abdou regularly goes to the football fields in Maximilien Park, which remained open during the Covid period. He meets regulars and other arrivals from all over the world. The park is located a stone’s throw from the Gare du Nord and the former location of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons.

May 2021. Abdou spends time at Maximilien Park, where he meets lots of friends.

At the foot of the sideline, the “migrants” set down their bags and their problems. Wherever it may be, there is something captivating and unifying about the spectacle of a football match. When Abdou comes here, he puts aside his difficulties and focuses all his energy on the game. His big brother phones him from Chad from time to time to remind him of his dream of joining a big club: « Captain! I hope you keep playing football, you have to believe in it ! »

Abdou believes in it but the month of June is approaching and it’s above all his academic success that he is now aiming for. Because you can dream of becoming a professional footballer and a nurse.

Abdou enjoys spending time in the refreshment bar at the Kraainem club after training. Under the gaze of the captain, Victor, he plays with the club’s mascot, Tigrou. « I’m usually afraid of dogs, but never with him. He knows me, comes to see me, looks for the ball. I like to play with him. »