By Maria Serrano, Amnesty International’s senior migration campaigner. @marsemavi
Many football fans travelled for miles to see Bayern Munich and Real Madrid play in the Champions League Quarter Final in Munich on 12 April. They were rewarded with the historic moment Real Madrid’s superstar Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 100th European goal – the atmosphere was electric.
But one journey to Munich stood out. In the cheering crowd were two people – both huge Real fans – who, even a year ago, could never have dreamt that they’d be watching their heroes play.
Alan and Gyan Mohammed are two refugees whose extraordinary journey from Syria to Europe finally ended in an emotional family reunion in Germany last month. The brother and sister, who were both teachers in their hometown of Al Hasakah in North Eastern Syria, have muscular dystrophy and use wheelchairs.
Mobility had always been difficult for them, but war doesn’t discriminate – so when the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) took over their hometown in the summer of 2014, they had little choice but to move.
Incredibly, Alan and Gyan travelled through the mountainous regions of Iraq and Turkey strapped to the sides of a horse while their mother, brother and sister pushed their heavy wheelchairs up the craggy paths. People smugglers took them to Greece, in an inflatable boat that kept breaking down.
After being rescued by the Greek coastguard they spent months in squalid conditions in Ritsona refugee camp in an isolated and abandoned military base 80km from Athens. Sweltering temperatures, a deeply uncertain future and the prolonged separation from family members already in Germany took their toll.
Those unbelievably difficult days must have felt like a lifetime ago yesterday, as the siblings took their seats in the buzzing stadium.
“This is my dream!” Alan said. A beaming Gyan told us that her favourite player is Luka Modrić, Real’s Croatian-born midfielder who was forced to flee as a refugee when war broke out in 1991. Like Gyan, Modrić had to overcome tragic circumstances to build a new life, one in which he is an inspiration to countless others.
The day before, Alan and Gyan had attended Real’s training session where they met the team – including Modrić, Ronaldo, Zidane and Gareth Bale – and were given T-shirts signed by the players. But they didn’t have tickets for the game the following day. In fact, they were halfway back to the reception centre where they are currently staying when a call came to say that tickets had become available – cue a mad rush to the stadium.
They made it just in time – but they were sitting among Bayern fans, including their brother Ivan. Ivan, who helps Gyan and Alan with many aspects of their daily life, is adapting fast to life in Germany, and wore the blue and red colours of the opposite team given to him the day before. When Madrid won, Alan couldn’t wait to get outside to mix with other fans – “I’m madridista!” he laughed, as he mingled and sang with the crowds:
Alan and Gyan have been Real fans ever since 2002, when Zinedine Zidane scored his famous goal in the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen – they watched the match in Syria. This week, they came face to face with Zidane, as well as Ronaldo, Modrić and other star players.
In Ritsona Alan had coached a football team, and was also the chief agitator for a screen in the camp so that refugees could watch a derby between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid. Now in the reception centre he often goes outside of the building looking for wifi so that he can watch his favourite matches.
To actually be at the stadium watching the game in real life, was, as Alan said, a dream come true.
Alan and Gyan’s story sadly has all the hallmarks of the refugee experience – the fear, the long tortuous journeys, the fragile boat, the miserable conditions of the camps and the endless uncertainty. But yesterday was a reminder that they are not just refugees. They are young, vibrant people with passions and dreams, who just want to carry on with their lives in safety, surrounded by their loved ones.
It was difficult not to be moved by their joy at being part of something that was in some ways so ordinary, and yet so special – a sign of how dramatically their lives have changed. Alan and Gyan are not just statistics – yesterday they were given the chance to feel like themselves again.
This is the chance that all refugees deserve. Stories like this should not be the exception. But the closure of the so-called Balkan route into northern Europe, the EU-Turkey deal and the failure of European leaders to relocate refugees has left over 60,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece, living in harrowing conditions and in a state of constant fear and uncertainty.
Despite all they have been through, Alan and Gyan, who have been granted refugee status in Germany, are some of the lucky ones. After a journey of almost three years they are safe, starting to learn German, and surrounded by their family as they await specially adapted accommodation – they are living proof that another ending is possible.