A road trip, around 400 kms long, from Aleppo in the north of Syria to Beirut in Lebanon down south can be one of great risk. The highway makes its way along what was once a beautiful landscape, which has now been replaced by rubble and ash. All along you may find buildings and homes left in ruin – and in some places, the threat of snipers – as the nine years of unrest in Syria continues to this day.
Six months ago, a 20-year-old, Ahmed Habbab embarked on this journey in his first-ever trip abroad, for the promise of greener pastures that were far greater than the perils of the trip. From Beirut, he caught a flight to Sharjah, then went on to Mumbai and finally landed in Bhubaneswar three days later. He’s here on a scholarship, studying in the first year of a Bachelor of Technology degree at the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT), but the real reason is to pursue a career in football.
The irony of Habbab’s decision is that he comes from a country that was on the brink of making it to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but is looking to launch a career in India, a world football minnow. And now he’s gearing up for his first moment in the spotlight when he lines up for his college at the Khelo India University Games.
“The thing in Syria is that you cannot make a living as a professional footballer,” Habbab says through a translator, a fellow-Syrian classmate and boxing hopeful Ali Mahfoud. “The stadiums have been damaged quite a bit back home, so the only way to even train is to go abroad and find a club to accept you. That’s what I hope to get from here.”
The unrest in Syria first started in 2011 when rebels sought to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the country for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Habbab too recalls that ‘fear.’
Six years ago, when the civil war was at its peak, Habbab remembers being stuck inside his home in Aleppo with his family (four siblings and parents), as gunfire and shelling threatened to kill anyone daring to step outside.
“For 10 days we all stayed at home, with no food, no water,” he says, choking as he recalls. “Stepping outside was not an option. We just had to stay indoors and wait. When things calmed down a bit, food became so expensive. For a kilogram of rice, which would normally come for 200-300 Syrian pounds, you’d have to pay 10,000. That’s just what it had become.”
Football at the time took a backseat for the budding striker who played in the Syrian youth league. The call of the hour was survival. But for those who still continued playing, they did so at their own peril. Zakaria Youssef, a footballer, was “killed in government shelling in 2012” and former national team captain Jihad Qassab’s body was identified two years later, according to The Independent.
“There was also one player hit while training, and so many coaches and officials have lost their lives during that period,” Muhannad Al-Fakeer, a FIFA technical delegate, had told The Indian Express in December 2018.
When the dust settled, just enough for Habbab to give football another try, the youngster was back in training. He trained and played for domestic clubs in the country, becoming immune to the faint sound of explosions in the backdrop, buoyed by the heroics of the national team that lost to Australia in extra time, in the 2018 World Cup qualifier, hoping that all this could lead him somewhere.
Then, six months ago, when he got the scholarship offer to study in India, it all fell into place. He now hopes to impress at the university games and attract a few scouts from the Indian Super League.
Presently in Syria, rebel forces have retreated to the city of Idlib and Al-Assad’s army is closing in. The United Nations has warned that the area could face “the worst humanitarian disaster of the century,” as reported by The Guardian. Meanwhile, over 5000 km away, Habbab is preparing to fight a battle of his own.
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