‘It shows them they’re not alone’: inside the UK’s first refugee team

‘Every one of these boys has a story,” says Fethi Ahmed as he looks across the parched playing surface of a recreation ground in Harlow. “But for two hours on a Thursday they can forget everything, whatever their difficulties. They count down the days to this. Everyone here knows they have football to keep them going.”

Ahmed knows better than anyone how Changing Lives FC, the first team in the UK to comprise entirely refugees and migrants, has helped to do what its name promises. It has been there for him since he arrived on these shores after a terrifying journey from Egypt six years ago, when he was just 16; it has been a crutch through even darker times, which led to a suicide attempt in 2019. He is the team’s captain: a well-known and respected figure in the community who others now turn to.

“I’m very famous in Harlow,” he says with a self-deprecating smile. “I try my best to help everyone. If anyone has an issue, I’ll do what I can. If I shout at them on the pitch they don’t take it personally: they know it’s from me, their friend.”

There are about 25 players on the grass and Ahmed counts 10 nationalities: Syrians, Ghanaians, Sudanese, Chadians. “Five or six don’t speak English yet,” he says. “But that’s the role of football, it’s the common language.”

Changing Lives FC play in the Harlow District League in Essex and its aims are threefold: improve the existences of its members, shift the often negative narrative around refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the country, and win games on the pitch.

Their coach, David Simmons, is a 28-year-old with extraordinary energy and vision whose influence on the group is palpable. “Everyone needs to work hard today, I’m choosing players for Sunday’s game,” he tells them as they stand in a circle, before outlining plans for the training session. This large, outwardly disparate group of young men aged between 16 and 24 listen intently.

“I believe we’re a good team,” Simmons says. “Some of these boys are talented enough to go all the way and become professional. What a story that would be. We try to strike a balance where we have fun as well as wanting them to learn. Enjoyment is important but another aspect of football is the discipline it brings.

“It brings people together, makes them understand they’re not alone. Some of these guys live in hotels and only have the four walls of their room. Here they can be outside, playing, talking, interacting. It builds up their confidence and that’s so important.”

The experience of Ussri Badawi, a versatile midfielder who fled war-torn Darfur at the age of 14 and describes himself as “one of the winners” for surviving a journey he finds too difficult to relive, reflects that. “At weekends I have little to do except play football so this is the best place I can be,” he says. “It’s a really supportive environment.”

Badawi, who arrived via Calais underneath a lorry, works part-time at Ikea and will receive his HGV licence in around four months if his driving course goes well.

The path has not been easy. Last season alone, Changing Lives FC were on the end of three instances of racial abuse; fortunately, their games are recorded on video and those offences could be reported to the FA.

Simmons, who has also been attacked online by trolls, has worked hard to improve the team’s composure under provocation. Given many of the players are still processing deep-seated traumas that can sometimes resurface under seemingly mild, non-racialised triggers, it can be difficult. Changing Lives FC used to receive more yellow and red cards than anyone in the league, but Simmons proudly explains that has changed.

While Ahmed and Badawi speak warmly of the reception they received in England and the lives they have been able to build, there is a sense they have thrived despite the system. Ahmed left home at 16 after being detained for six months in a local police station after the imprisonment of his father, who was an opponent of the government. He describes crossing the Mediterranean in a fishing boat crammed with about 600 people under the burning sun.

It took a week, with no food and half a glass of drinking water each day if he was lucky. Unlike in Italy, where he ended up and was consigned to the streets, he was housed here and brought into the system. But his struggle with the Home Office took four and a half years, multiple court cases and an error that almost cost him his life.

“They realised the caseworker had made a mistake early on with my situation and granted me leave to remain in 2020,” he says. “It was the happiest day of my life. Those years when my application kept being refused were so tough. Would I end up in Egypt again? Would I go straight to prison?

“One day I decided I couldn’t do it any more, I’d been waiting for so long and could not achieve anything in my life: you can’t work or study and live on £37 a week. I tried to jump off London Bridge, but an undercover policeman pulled me down. And from there, things turned around.”

Ahmed works in a B&Q store and also with Simmons in his wider Changing Lives community organisation. He expects to be able to apply for a mortgage next year. “Some people think we come here to take public funds but it’s just not like that,” he says. “I work, I pay tax, I pay road tax on my car, it’s the same as everyone else. I’m just getting the same chances as other people now. It’s the same with these boys on the pitch: look at them, they aren’t causing issues with anyone.”

That is also the crux of the matter for Simmons, a former PE teacher who has started similar teams in Bishop’s Stortford and Chelmsford. “People forget these are human beings,” he says. “They’re young people who are risking their lives to get to the UK. Why would we not accept all these people who want to come here and do better for themselves? I want to be a voice who helps others see this, as they aren’t represented fairly.”

With that, he and Ahmed return to keep a close eye on training. These players may, as Badawi said, already be winners in one sense, but Sunday is their primary goal now.