The pavement is crowded with people rushing and pushing their way through. Car noises penetrate his ears. Passers-by talk into their cell phones in a language he does not understand. He stands there all alone for minutes, maybe hours, completely disoriented, not knowing what to do. People smugglers dropped him here all the way from Afghanistan. He is in London, but he does not know it. He is 14 years old.
Fast-forward seven years and that same Afghan boy is a role model for young refugees. Now 22, Matiullah Haidar has a college degree and a range of award titles behind his name. He has shaken hands with members of the royal family and been honoured by city mayors and sporting heroes. He says it is all thanks to a sport he had never even heard of before: cricket.
When I first met Mati two years ago, he told me his extraordinary life story. He grew up in an Afghan mountain village without electricity or other luxuries. He had never travelled or spent a night away from his family. Then, one day, a group of men came and took his dad, who had opposed the political regime. Not long after, they came back for his 18-year-old brother. The family never saw them again.
Mati’s mother took him and his younger brother and sister to his uncle’s house in another village. As the oldest son now remaining in the family, it was not safe for him there either. Word went around that he would be next. “That is when my mum said to me: ‘you have to go’. I was really afraid, but I had no choice”, he said at the time.
Almost three months of travelling in barbaric conditions followed, crossing six or seven countries on foot and in the back of trucks. Mati had not been told where he was going or whether he would ever be reunited with his family. All he knew was to listen to the agent who was smuggling him and a group of strangers, who were all much older. They walked through snow and heat and slept in the open air. Every time the group reached a border, the agent told them to lie down flat and not move if anyone shot at them. Fleeing was useless as no one had papers or passports. They had to leave behind group members who could not walk fast enough. The memory still haunts him.
Rescued in London
When Mati finally got dropped on the streets of London, he thought no one would ever understand what he had been through. He now knows that - just like him - other young refugees arrive in the city every day. His rescuer at the time was an Afghan man who walked past speaking his native language on his cell phone. When Mati stopped the man to explain his situation, he wrote the words “home office” on Mati’s hand and pointed him in the right direction. The young boy eventually reached the big building where his future would be determined.
As an underage refugee, Mati was placed in a foster family. He started school not speaking a word of English and even at home he had to ring an interpreter every time a conversation with his host family got stuck. Via the Refugee Council he was brought to a training session of the charity Cricket 4 Change. Within months, he had not only got a grip on the rules and techniques, but was also supporting fellow Afghan refugee children who had arrived in the capital alone. When he explained what the sport meant to him back in 2012, I noticed the determination in his soft-spoken voice: “When I played, I wasn’t thinking too much”, he told me. “My mind was a bit at peace.”
I had never even heard of these famous people that I met. I just shook hands and only afterwards realised that it was quite special.
Two summers on, that same determination has helped Matiullah Haidar to build a life for himself in his new home city. He regularly gets invited to talk at schools and council events and has become a role model for others at the refugee cricket project. Since 2009, the initiative has helped more than 100 boys, mostly teenagers from Afghanistan.
He is shy when I ask him about all the awards and prizes he has won, from the Beyond Sport Award, which he received from no less than David Beckham and Muhammad Ali, to the Spirit of London’s award for Achievement Through Sport. He says he had to get used to Britain’s celebrity culture, something that was completely alien to him. “It is funny, because I had never even heard of these famous people that I met”, he laughs. “I just shook hands and only afterwards realised that it was quite special.”
But there is a shadow hanging over his success, says Mati, as his family are not here to witness it. He has not been able to contact them since his arrival in the UK seven years ago. Milestones such as the recent completion of his college diploma in applied sciences had to be celebrated alone. When I ask what he misses most about his home life, he says it is his childhood. “When I came here, I was still a child”, he explains. “I had to grow up fast.”
Dreams still on hold
Mati’s dream is go to university to study biomedical science and become a GP. Because of visa restrictions that dream has to be put on hold for now. He is currently awaiting the outcome of his application to remain in the UK and until that process is completed no university will let him apply.
When I came here, I was still a child. I had to grow up fast.
He shows me around Cricket 4 Change’s indoor and outdoor training grounds near Croydon, which have become like a second home to him over the years. He still volunteers with the charity as a youth leader, and translates and assists whenever new recruits arrive at one of the Refugee Council’s surgeries. For the young boys who arrive for the first time, Mati has a clear message. “Always be positive”, he says, without a doubt. “I tell them how important it is to go to school and learn the language, and to keep busy and learn new skills.”
It is these skills, including cricket, that have helped Mati and many of the refugee children to cope and find confidence in their new lives. “It helps us to clear our minds, to forget the things that we are remembering during the nighttime when we are sleeping, when we are alone”, he says. “When times are hard, I tell the boys: you are ambassadors of your families, even if you might not know where they are or if they are alive. If you do well, they will be proud.”
[Caption: Matiullah Haidar at the Cricket 4 Change training grounds in South London, which have become like a second home to him, July 2014. Photo by Danielle Batist]