In football-crazy Germany, Afghan refugee Safiullah Ahmadzai, 19, scores with cricket
Safiullah Ahmadzai, 19, came to Germany as a refugee from Afghanistan. A local cricket club gave him a chance to shine in his favourite sport.
The ball zipped through the covers — or what passed for them anyway in a patch of green of a Hamburg suburb — amidst a smattering of applause from the sidelines. Safiullah Ahmadzai, the author of the stroke ambled to the middle of the field to exchange words with the non-striking batsman. It was just another four in a game of social cricket that Saturday afternoon.
Ahmadzai, 19, oozed casual confidence, far in excess of the kind on display by many of the other weekend players; but befitting his pedigree as a member of last year’s German Under-19 cricket team.
At least five other Afghanis were among the 20 men on the field. Most were refugees from a war-torn country where cricket has seeped so deep into national culture that coming dressed up in white on a sunny day in Hamburg and throwing a ball around is a little bit like feeling at home again.
Ahmadzai — Safi to friends and teammates — is one of the young men who was wrenched from his homeland in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and moved to Germany in 2013 in search of a better, safer life.
But life could be barely be considered complete without his beloved sport. When a social worker at one of the refugee shelters asked him what his hobbies were, the answer was simple. A few internet searches later, he arrived at the THCC Rot-Gelb, a multi-sport club in a leafy neighbourhood of Hamburg. “I was so surprised they played here,” he said, between nets sessions one Friday evening. “I was really happy.”
By the time he arrived, it had been several months since he’d felt the warm hug of gloves or heard the sweet crackle of willow on leather. “Of course I missed it,” he said. “I was lucky I found this club. So many people are interested to play but don’t know where they can go.”
Last year Ahmadzai played for the Under-19 national German team; one that had six other Afghans in it. The team played against Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and France, with Ahmadzai coming in as a middle-order bat.
“It was a big moment,” he said of his selection, having not made the team the previous year. “I didn’t expect it.”
Ahmadzai will turn 20 this September, a thin, medium-height young man with piercing green eyes and a sliver of beard running along the edge of his face. Asked whether he was a bowler or batsman, he didn’t hesitate to respond. “An all-rounder,” he said. “I do everything.”
In a country where football is the national religion, the minority faith of cricket has been steadily accruing followers with the refugee influx.
Steve Aplin, one of the coaches and senior players in the club team, said it was a combination of a large number of Afghan refugees and a wider Internet presence that helped send the club’s numbers from about 50 people at the end of 2012 to more than 100 now. The group — a motley bunch of different nationalities including a West Indian, Indians, Pakistanis, Australians and Britishers — trains twice a week, with the season beginning in April.
Ahmadzai now simply plays cricket, but it took a different kind of risk-assessment game to get here. “It’s like playing with your life,” he said of the long and trying journey from Afghanistan.
He arrived here three years ago, navigating dangerous terrains, his safety in the hands of a smuggler. Parting with USD 14,000 to attempt this flight, with no guarantees of anything, he along with seven other young men managed to get until Russia legally and then up to Germany without any documents. Later, the smuggler tore up his passport. “We took vehicles or we walked, we were in jungles most of the time,” he said.
He originally hoped to flee to Australia, because of the strong cricket culture, but the distance and dangers involved were far greater, so he picked Germany.
Arriving with nothing but a small bag and the clothes on his back, he entered the country for all practical purposes, a stateless person. Technically, he is still a stateless one. He has played for the national team, but is yet to officially get a passport. So when he travelled to play, he had to get special permission to leave and re-enter the country. “It is strange,” he said, of the situation. “With football it might have been different.”
Now he lives in a shared residential facility with others, and is applying for jobs as an apprentice in the field of retail management. Living on an initial monthly government cash allowance of 143 Euros, putting together equipment was a task. “This bat,” he said, lifting it for me to see, “cost me 60 euros”. Although originally more than double the price, he managed to get the new bat at a good price from a friend.
Later that afternoon he came in to bowl, his black beaded chain flapping against his collarbone, and a loose delivery sailed over the batsman’s head, nearly decapitating him. “Scheisse,” he exclaimed in German, and then apologised to the batsman.
When he went off to field near point he commandeered fielders and indulged in light banter from time to time. “Come a little bit forward,” he told another Afghan in Hindi. Later he let fly some sharp words after a fumble in the field, in what sounded like Pashto. In any case, it certainly sounded annoyed.
So he speaks four languages: English, Pashto, Hindi, German, apart of course from the kinesthetic one of leg glances and square cuts.
Like most other Afghanis, he learnt Hindi from the movie channels and cricket from the sports channels, admiring people like AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli and closer home, Mohammad Shahzad.
“Earlier we used to support other teams,” he said, “but now we have our own national team.”
Cricket has exploded in the past decade in war-torn Afghanistan, its national team making a serious bid for future relevancy, its stadiums flowing with spectators. Even the dour Taliban, its joyless ambitions notwithstanding, has never interrupted the natural growth of the game and in fact, even threw its weight behind the team.
Now people like Ahmadzai, are bringing their cricketing ambitions to the land of football. Last year he was player of the season at the local club. Next month he will go for the selections of the new Under 19 team.
“I love it,” he said. “My biggest dream is to keep playing.”
The men's team was accompanied by the women's side that is touring England for three ODIs and as many T20s besides the one-off Test, starting in Bristol on 16 June.
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