Al Jazeera World

Afghan United: Hope through Football for Refugees in Iran

Young Afghans in Iran overcome obstacles to play in a Ramadan football tournament – with dramatic results.

Filmmaker: Mehdi Saghatchi

For a group of alienated young Afghan refugees in Iran, football proves a powerful force that gives them a much-needed boost in pride, identity and self-worth.

They call their team ‘Wahdat’ meaning ‘unity’ and assemble a talented and determined squad. They overcome all the odds to form a team, obtain sponsorship and enter one of the Iranian futsal, five-a-side competitions played in evenings after iftar during Ramadan.

They not only make it through the early rounds but go on to win the final and lift the Ramadan Cup.

But this is about more than football. It’s about young men trying to rise above their circumstances and their daily struggle to survive – and succeeding.

Afghans have been seeking refuge in Iran since the 1970s but they and their families are largely unregistered. Although they can go to school, they cannot attend university, or work as civil servants or in most white-collar jobs. So they’re limited to manual work, often in construction.

Only football motivates us to live. If there was no football, I don't know what we'd do or where we'd go.

by Reza Ghaljayi, Wahdat player

“I want a better job but I’m still grateful for this one. There are many people without jobs,” says Reza Ghaljayi, a Wahdat player working as a building labourer.

“Companies don’t hire us … We work for one day, then nothing for four days,” says street trader and Wahdat team supervisor Dastagir Barik Zehi.

Many young Afghans do not feel welcome in shopping malls or places of entertainment and claim widespread discrimination.

“You get attached to the place where you’re born. I was born, studied, married and grew up here. But, unfortunately, I don’t have a residence permit or an ID,” says another footballer, Mojtaba Haji Hosseini.

For many, football is their only social outlet and can be their salvation.

“Only football motivates us to live. If there was no football, I don’t know what we’d do or where we’d go,” says Reza.

The Wahdat team is strong. One of them once played for Afghanistan Under-20s. But the last time they took part in a Ramadan tournament two years ago, there was violence on and off the pitch, blacklisting them in their hometown.

It takes all captain Nasir Zouri’s organisational powers to get them into a competition in another town – and find a sponsor prepared to back them. That would normally just involve funding, but here it also means having enough influence to ensure the players’ welfare and safety during the tournament.

Afghan United is a touching and rarely-told story about a disadvantaged community, but with a positive, life-affirming outcome – in the footballing sense, at least.