For migrants in Spain, hope in the form of their own soccer team

Catarina Fernandes Martins

While watching the 1998 World Cup on TV, Issa Abdou took his geography book and started planning to leave Cameroon. At the age of 8, Issa’s goal was to go to Spain and play in the best soccer league in the world.

Two years later, this son of nomadic shepherds said goodbye to his parents and headed north. He says he lived in Nigeria, Niger, and Algeria, saving money to reach Morocco. At each leg of the journey, he colored the maps in his geography book with his eye on the goal. In 2007 he climbed the 20-foot fence in Melilla, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, and waited until the Red Cross and the police came to help.

“It wasn’t Madrid or Barcelona, but when I saw the Spanish flag in Melilla, I was okay – I had made it to Spain,” Mr. Abdou says, his eyes displaying a nostalgic glimmer, a reminiscence of how hopeful he felt that day.

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Fast forward almost 12 years, and his dream of becoming a professional soccer player in Spain came true, although nothing happened exactly as he had planned.

Never having found a steady job in Spain and currently without work, Issa Abdou is scraping by. But he is the captain of “Alma de África,” Soul of Africa, a team of immigrants and Spaniards that plays in the third division of Andalusia’s regional soccer league. For four years, the soccer initiative has been helping migrants integrate into the south of Spain, with its large influx of migrants and chronically high levels of joblessness. The coach and players provide a support network and the imprimatur of belonging to a real team.    

“If I knew this was how it was going to be, I would have stayed in Cameroon.... I play with Alma de África – it takes my mind off my problems. Alma de África is my family now,” Abdou says.

Even as Spain last year became a top destination for migrants – with more than 57,000 having arrived in 2018 – Spanish society has largely avoided the xenophobic tensions felt elsewhere in Europe.  Since taking office in the summer, the social-democratic Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez adopted a liberal policy on immigration, and has been hailed for his progressive stance. A Pew Research Center survey published in September found Spain to be the European country most supportive of refugees, with 86 percent of Spaniards in favor of taking in people fleeing violence and war. But in Andalusia, there’s growing frustration with the lack of a clear plan on how to accommodate them. Last month, the anti-immigrant party Vox won 12 seats in the Andalusian parliament, the first time a far-right party made it into public office since Spain became a democracy in 1978. On Wednesday they joined a governing coalition after some of their more extreme demands were dropped, including the expulsion of 52,000 migrants.

THE DISCIPLINE OF A GAME 

Four years ago, Quinn Rodriguez noticed an unruly and aggressive game being played on a field here in Jerez de la Frontera, a city in southern Spain. He and his friend and former soccer player Alejandro Benítez returned with the idea of a match between the group – which they had named Alma de África – and a local professional team.

The event was a success: Instead of charging for attendance, the newly formed team raised 200 pounds of donated food and started thinking about taking itself more seriously. Mr. Benítez and Mr. Rodriguez learned that adding Spanish players facilitated the process of registering Alma de África with the Spanish Football Federation. They didn’t hesitate to do so, thinking that it would also be positive for the integration of the immigrant players.

The players practice 2-1/2 hours, three times a week. On Sundays, for competition they put on green jerseys printed with Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Alma de África includes players from 15 different countries – some from Africa and Latin America – and has attracted sponsors and media attention. They reached the second division of Andalusia’s regional soccer league, before climbing down to the third division last year. But in an echo of the broader challenges Spain faces in integrating thousands of immigrants, the members of the team are showing some signs of fatigue.

“Upon arriving to Europe, most migrants are convinced life will become suddenly very easy,... that Europe is a sort of Disneyland where money ... grows on trees,” says Alejandro Benítez, the current volunteer president of Alma de África. “They grow disappointed with the difficulty of finding a job or with the need to set the paperwork first. And in my opinion, the welcoming system in Spain treats them like children, instead of preparing them to become autonomous citizens.”

Mr. Benítez says some players have started focusing too much on getting paid to play, which, he says, isn’t possible because the team struggles to raise money to register the players, and for other costs associated with a professional team. “They have unrealistic expectations because of [top] players like [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. I worry ... but I would like them to understand that I invest a lot of my time and my own money to give them an opportunity to play soccer and to feel they’re like everyone else in Jerez,” Benítez says.

Another Alma de África player, Modu Dione, arrived in Spain nine years ago. He’s training to become an executive chef, but there’s no guarantee of a job at his hotel after his internship is completed. He pays $172 a month for a small room with a bed, in an apartment he shares with two roommates. Like Abdou, Mr. Dione finds occasional jobs as a beach vendor in the summer. He manages to send some money to his family in Senegal. “I have to send something, no matter how little. Like us before arriving here, they’re under the illusion life is easy,” Dione says. “They watch images of Europe on TV, and it’s not easy to tell them it’s not true. I don’t tell them the whole story so they don’t suffer for me.”

PRESSURE FOR A GOVERNMENT PLAN

Alma de África’s players say Spaniards are “affectionate” and “welcoming,” but they express frustration with the region’s high unemployment; at 32 percent last June, the city of Jerez registered the fifth highest rate in Spain. Migrant shelters in Jerez and other towns are increasingly overcrowded, leaving some to wander the streets.

“We’re going through a delicate moment in Jerez, a turning point, I would say,” says Michel Bustillo Garat, a social worker with the local migrants organization “Voluntarios por Otro Mundo,” Volunteers for Another World. “There seemed to be a pact of silence among politicians so as not to stir hatred towards migrants, but since May that pact might have been broken when some of them made public anti-immigration statements. And now you can hear regular people complaining that migrants are stealing their jobs and their money,” Mr. Garat says.

The government contracted companies and foundations to take care of emergency accommodation of a large number of minors and other migrants for relatively little, Garat says, which leaves many living in inhumane conditions. Garat says he has visited centers with capacity for 20 minors that house 80 or 140 at a time. “It’s not enough to give migrants shelter and food. We need a real plan to integrate them, one that makes sure migrants are receiving professional training and education, to prepare them to find jobs and lead autonomous lives in Spain,” says Garat.  

The president of Andalusia, Susana Díaz, has asked to “distribute the immigration effort” among all regions. Forty-seven percent of the 10,100 unaccompanied child migrants that have arrived in Spain in the last two years are in Andalusia. “This is a collective and shared responsibility,” she was quoted as saying in El País.

For now, Abdou is not worried about politics. Spaniards have always been kind toward him, he says, dismissing the shift in attitudes others have been noticing as a fad. He prefers to focus on something more productive. When he sees unaccompanied minors wandering the streets, he invites them into his home, sharing the lessons he has learned. He wants them to know that, in Europe, “time means money,” and he hopes they learn from his mistakes.

Abdou has made peace with the fact that he probably won’t become the next Ronaldo. Spain has been home for more than a decade, but he misses his family in Cameroon. So his eyes are set on a different goal. “I’m going to be a soccer coach, and I’ll set up a soccer school in Cameroon so that kids can play there. I will tell them they don’t need to be in Europe to dream. I will teach them that in Europe, instead of fighting for their dream, they will waste time making mistakes. In Africa, they can use that time to become better. In Africa, time means freedom,” Abdou says.

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