CROYTON: The two bowlers gasp as the ball flies narrowly past the head of 22-year-old Mati, then burst into laughter as the batsman’s momentary look of panic turns into a bashful grin.
The scene on a sunny afternoon at this modest cricket club in south London is a world away from war-torn Afghanistan, where these three young men — Mati, Arman and Haroon — grew up.
The Refugee Cricket Project (RCP) was founded in 2009 with the aim of bringing young refugees together, improving their English and cricketing ability, and offering guidance with asylum applications and welfare issues.
The project, mainly made up of Afghan refugees because of cricket’s popularity in the South Asian country, is one of a growing number of sports initiatives in Britain that aims to help refugees, particularly youngsters who are among the most vulnerable victims of displacement.
“On my first day I was so shy… I was just sitting in the corner and watching, and my English wasn’t good so I couldn’t understand the coaches,” 21-year-old Arman says softly.
“But some of the Afghan guys came over and translated for me, and I got used to it,” he says, leaning back in his chair and fiddling with his cap while glancing at his teammates.
Mati, Arman and Haroon were once among the dozens of child refugees who arrive alone in Britain every week seeking asylum. Almost 2,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Britain last year, the majority from Albania, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria, according to the Home Office (interior ministry).
Many are smuggled out of poverty-stricken and war-torn countries, sent away by their families to escape poverty and persecution, and undergo cramped, lengthy and perilous journeys before arriving in Britain.
Arriving alone in Britain can be terrifying for children who are unable to speak English and unused to the environment.
Some are interrogated by immigration officials and held in detention centres while their asylum claims are processed.
“When I arrived, I wasn’t sure what they would do to me, or even who they were. I was very scared,” says 18-year-old Haroon.
Arman was 15 when he stepped out of the back of the truck which had smuggled him into Britain to be greeted by several police cars and a helicopter flying overhead. “I told social services I was 15, but they said ‘No you are lying, you look older’… and they took me to a detention centre. I was there for three and a half months,” he says.
The past — a kept secret
The three men choose not to disclose their full names for fear of retribution for their families in Afghanistan. They refuse to talk about what pushed them to leave, but some of their teammates fled forced recruitment as suicide bombers, and others faced death threats.
When it comes to talking about adapting to life in Britain, however, the three are laid-back and self-assured. From detention centres to foster families to shared housing, the experiences of Mati, Arman and Haroon, who have all been in Britain for at least five years, have varied greatly.
But they were all sent to school in Britain, and struggled to fit in. “The boys were rude to me, they bullied me as I couldn’t understand English,” says Haroon. “Slowly, very slowly, I started speaking English and they’ve become my friends now.”
Despite having only played cricket with plastic balls back home, the three men took to the sport swiftly in Britain, and showed off their natural talent in the nets. “First I was a batsman, then I became a wicketkeeper, then I tried to bowl, and I’m a fielder too so I’m doing everything now I’m good at all of it,” Arman says with a smile.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2015.