Football - synonymous with freedom and opportunity

Text: Laure Derenne - Photography: Johanna de Tessières

Mohammad (not his real name) is an unaccompanied foreign minor. Having arrived in Belgium in the midst of the Covid period, this young Afghan quickly flourished. His reception centre in Overijse, his Brussels school and the Kraainem club form the three pillars of his integration programme.

Mohammad (not his real name) fled Afghanistan for security reasons. He stays in a reception centre for unaccompanied foreign minors where he discovered football. Since then he has come to Kraainem FC whenever he can to learn to play.

Mohammad is 16. He arrived in Belgium in September 2020, after a 5-month journey from Afghanistan. In the midst of the Covid pandemic, his life has never seemed so peaceful and free: water flows from the tap when you turn it on; people talk with whomever they want and wear what they like, even colourful clothes with original designs. You eat when you are hungry and the words "bomb" and "war" appear much more often in history books than in local newspapers. After a brief stint in a French-speaking Fedasil reception centre, Mohammad was sent to Overijse, to a specialist centre for unaccompanied foreign minors. After just a few months he was already fluent in Dutch. This boy takes school very seriously and sees how lucky he is to be able to go there every day, right in the heart of Brussels. He dreams of setting up on his own in the electricity sector or in architecture, and will soon start a work-experience scheme.

The discovery of football

It was at the Fedasil Centre in Overijse that Mohammad discovered football (in Afghanistan, the national sport is cricket). On the pitch adjacent to the centre, around sixty residents take turns to enjoy outdoor activity and a kick-about. A partnership with the Kraainem club allows a bubble of seven players to spend one evening on alternate weeks benefitting from real football training.

When Mohammad arrived on the club’s full-size pitch, he was impressed by the complexity of football: « Dribble », « Passe », He trains and tries out set-pieces. As in many areas of his life, this young man is progressing very quickly.

It all started with a group of unaccompanied foreign minors, who came from Overijse to take a soccer lesson in Kraainem. The club is known for its many different nationalities. Now known as “We Welcome Young Refugees”, this project has already enabled more than 2,500 asylum seekers to participate in training, matches and tournaments within the club.

Amelia, his companion for today, watches with enthusiasm as he learns on the pitch. It is a relief to be able to count on a club like Kraainem. The periods of confinement are not easy in a centre with 65 young people. Every opportunity to go outside is a godsend, not only for much-needed outdoor relaxation, but also for building bridges with Belgian society.

Carefree for one evening

As we move into summer, the boys will soon have no school during the day. Mohammad loves to draw and paint. His social worker is trying to find him an internship, but it is not easy. First, there is the organisation: travel, the lack of accompanying persons, the possible cost, language barriers and the constraints of the Covid lockdown measures. But the number one problem is convincing people to take in refugees: « Unaccompanied foreign minors don’t find it easy to make contacts and introduce themselves on their own. Everything ends up going through us, in texts and procedures. In the eyes of employers or reception centres, this already makes things complicated. If they could only meet these young people directly… ». Amelia pauses, before finishing her sentence: « These kids are so amazing!” We just want to adopt them! »

Mohammad comes back from his training, all smiles, and goes off to change. But he also knows that his plans for the future will come up against a grim reality: What will be the follow-up to his reception procedure? How will he handle the prejudice? Will he find people willing to give him a chance and trust him? One thing at a time. For now, Mohammad has just spent a special hour away from all his worries.

A photo with his companion ? Of course ! Laughter bursts out. Both strike a pose facing the field, but the image that remains is that of seeing them walk away, arm in arm, partners, happy and carefree, at least for one evening.