Karim kicks a football in a rectangle of earth a few kilometres away from the highway on the edge of Rome. He comes from Ghazni, a city in Afghanistan that was destroyed by US firepower. He has no house and no job, and lives in a welcoming centre in Rome. At this training session, he seems desperate to impress, stealing the ball in midfield, dribbling elegantly past an opponent and delivering a long pass to Mamadi, a 19-year-old from Guinea. Like Karim, Mamadi has been unable to find a job and passes a significant part of his week waiting at police headquarters in Rome in the hope of obtaining a permit of stay. He centres the ball to his teammate Ismaila, who frees himself from the defence and slots the ball into the net. Ismaila comes from Togo, and the authorities have just rejected his first request for asylum. From the rickety stands behind the bench, someone applauds Ismaila’s goal while the players congratulate each other.
Ismaila, Karim and Mamadi play for Liberi Nantes, who this year will compete in the third division of Italy’s semi-professional lower league. That is where the similarity with others in the league ends, however. Ismaila, Karim and Mamadi are not their real names, and Liberi Nantes is no ordinary team. The 25-man squad is made up of players from the world’s trouble spots – Afghanistan, Eritrea, Guinea, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and all are refugees. These players will never have their real names and pictures on trading cards because the authorities in their home countries believe they are dead – and if they knew the truth, their families would be in grave danger. And because their asylum claims are in doubt, they cannot be registered and get a contract. Most of them are recent arrivals, live in welcoming centres for refugees and are dependent on the welfare services that Rome provides. The name Liberi Nantes comes from the 118th verse of Book I of The Aeneid, in which the exiled Trojans fleeing their burning city are shipwrecked, and only a few – “rari nantes” – are able to reach shore. The Trojans were refugees, too, and like the players of the Liberi Nantes, they crossed the Mediterranean in search of a place to start afresh. According to Greco- Roman mythology, Aeneas found that place and built Rome there.
Almost 2,700 years later in the same city, Ibrahin is the man to whom Liberi Nantes have entrusted the position of goalkeeper. He is an imposing 27-year-old Togolese and the team captain. Before he steps onto the field, he kisses a picture of his son on his mobile phone. He hasn’t seen his son for almost a year, since before he was sent to a military prison in Togo for five months. “The government didn’t like me,” he explains, “because I was part of an opposition party.” Ibrahin worked as an engineer before being arrested for participating in a protest against President Faure Gnassingbe, elected in 2005 among suspicions of voterigging. The protests were crushed with extreme violence and many who survived were arrested. “They massacred thousands of people and the newspapers didn’t talk about it,” says Ibrahin, who had no choice but to escape. Today, he shares a room with seven others in a welcoming centre. He spends his days in the waiting room of a lawyer’s office. His first request for asylum was rejected and he is now waiting for his appeal to be heard. The law on refugees in Italy is complicated. The right of asylum was modified last year by two legislative decrees issued by the government of former prime minister Romano Prodi, in accordance with European Union directives. They introduced important improvements, including the suspension of expulsions during the appeal process. These improvements did not last long. Under security laws approved on May 21 by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, refugees may be deported without the right of appeal. Last year, 13,509 requests for asylum were examined by seven territorial commissions in Italy. Of these only 1,408 were approved. About 30 per cent of asylum requests are approved on appeal, so Ibrahin’s situation is precarious. Almost all of Ibrahin’s teammates are fleeing a dangerous past and facing an uncertain future. The centre-back, a Guinean, was tortured in prison before coming to Italy.
The 25 year-old full-back, also from Guinea, spent four months in a military prison after participating in a union protest. Thousands of his fellow citizens gathered in a public square to protest against the president, General Lansana Conte, for his lengthy mandate – he has been in power since 1984 – and false promises of democracy. Clashes between protesters and authorities left 90 people dead and 300 wounded. “I would like to return to my family, but I can’t,” says the Guinean full-back. “When I’m not training, I spend my days searching for a job, I haven’t found one yet. I am grateful to Italy because it welcomed me and it’s as if it saved my life, even if it often happens that I sit on a bench and see that the other people get up to get away from me. In the Liberi Nantes, however, I found other guys that are in the same situation as me, with the same problems. This has helped me a lot.”
Ghedam is a 23-year-old midfielder who stands accused of desertion in his home country of Eritrea. He had just began studying accountancy when the government sent him to military camp a few kilometres from Asmara. With the Ethiopian army at the doors of his country, there is not much room for study. The sole Eritrean political party – the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice – needs soldiers, and conscientious objectors are not tolerated. “I hate war and I didn’t want to be a soldier,” says Ghedam. “I took advantage of my time off and I escaped.” The choice that Ghedam made cost him US$1,200 – his life savings. On a dinghy packed with 40 passengers, he braved a trip over rough waters to get from Tripoli to Lampedusa – a small island off the south coast of Sicily. “I didn’t have any other choice,” he says when asked about the risks involved. “I would have died of hunger or thirst, or been killed in any other country.” The trip took 35 hours. Two Sudanese passengers died on the way. As with the others, Ghedam’s first request for asylum was rejected and he is waiting for his appeal to be heard. He cannot go home, but if he remains in Italy he must make it on his own. If he and the other refugees do not find regular jobs within a year, they risk being pushed out of assistance centres and sent home.
Karim dreams of one day scoring a goal in Serie A – Italy’s premier league. In 2005, the Taleban killed his family, and US forces destroyed his house. To escape, he spent five days travelling through the Persian mountains in a truck with 50 people and the inescapable odour of urine. He doesn’t talk much, but says he was an expert shoemaker in his home country. Karim’s story is like the others’ – he lives in a welcoming centre, cannot find work, and says he would never consider going back to Afghanistan. “A puppet,” he says of President Hamid Karzai, “put in power by the Americans.” He is no fan of the Taleban either. “They are like the mafia here in Italy – they destroy our fields, kill people, and steal the little that we have.” Karim, who wears the centre-forward’s No 9 shirt, has been inconsistent, but Liberi Nantes depends on his goals.
“We will continue forward,” says Gianluca Di Girolami, the mastermind behind Liberi Nantes Football Club. “They, too, should be given the right to play, the right to have fun. 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 half a job. We want to give their lives a little bit of normalcy.” Training is over. Only Karim remains on the field, sitting at the edge of it, touching his sore ankle. Tomorrow morning, he will look for work yet again, and in the coming months the authorities will examine his appeal. Someone runs up to him and shows him his new kit. Who knows if he will be able to stay long enough to wear it.
Articolo di Lorenzo Tondo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Da: South China Morning Post (scmp.com)
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