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Bahaa and the Arsenal


The story of a true meeting of football minds and a childhood dream come true.

By HostNation's Anthony Berman

"Which football team do you support, Bahaa?”

“Arsenal!” came the immediate reply.

As a lifelong Gooner (a hardcore Arsenal fan), this was music to my ears. Bahaa had been flagged to HostNation by one of our referral partners, Breaking Barriers, who help refugees prepare for the workplace; as one of the management team at HostNation, I was on the phone getting to know more about him, so we could provide him with a local friend.

When he shared the fact that he supported Arsenal, I knew we had the perfect befriender waiting in the wings. Joshua Hill is a few years younger than Bahaa and among his many interests is a love of football. Like me, Josh is a season ticket holder at the Arsenal. When I introduced them on WhatsApp video, I saw from the outset that this was a true meeting of football minds.

Bahaa and other HostNation friends explain why befriending is so important to them:

Shortly after that, Arsenal were playing at home to Southampton on a Friday night. The friend I usually sit with was unwell and offered me his ticket. I called Bahaa to ask if he fancied a trip to the Emirates and, no surprise, he jumped at the chance. It was his childhood dream to see Arsenal play at their famous stadium. Even better, Josh was going to the match and would join us in the bar pre-kick off.

On the morning of the match, Bahaa told me about a documentary that Breaking Barriers was making about him and four other refugees who were getting their lives back on track, having being granted refugee status in the UK. The crew wanted to film us both outside the stadium before the match. There’s a heartwarming scene where Bahaa and I greet each other like long-lost brothers before I present him with an Arsenal cap. The smile on his face as he says, “Now I am a proper fan,” is unforgettable.

In the bar, Bahaa, Josh and I sat discussing the upcoming match; the warm impression I had formed of the young refugee during our phone calls was spot on. Yet life for him since his decision to seek asylum in this country has been very hard. As he explains in the documentary:

“I started my life here in the UK from scratch. I had no friends, no family, no one at all.” Bahaa

He is still sharing a tiny room in a Home Office-approved hotel in Paddington, which feels almost like a prison cell. And yet from his upbeat, smiling, charismatic demeanour, you would never guess what struggles are going on in his life.

Before kick-off I was a bit concerned as to how he’d react to the swearing that reverberates around the terraces during every match, since Bahaa is a practicing Muslim. I needn’t have worried; from the start he was up on his feet, urging the team on and showing that he was no stranger to a bit of industrial language himself.

Southampton were bottom of the league and Arsenal were top, so this should have been a stroll in the park for the Gunners. However, with a few minutes to go, Arsenal were losing by three goals to one and the mood in the stadium was decidedly downbeat. Getting hammered by the worst team in the league certainly wasn’t part of the script. A moment later, however, Arsenal pulled one back and almost immediately followed up with an equaliser. Pandemonium! We were all up on our feet, roaring the team on to get an unlikely winner.

But it wasn’t to be. After the final whistle, Bahaa slumped back in his seat, smiling and shaking his head from side to side. “Unbelievable, three-three! It’s bad… but it’s better than losing!”

While driving Bahaa back to the tube, he told me a bit more about his family. He is one of six children, all of them university educated and working in professions like dentistry, pharmacy and engineering. Bahaa is a structural engineer with a PhD and an impressive CV and mentioned that he had a job interview coming up the following week.

“What do you like about the UK?” I asked him. “I like the way the English speak,” he replied. “I like the way they shorten words. They don’t say ‘what,’ they say ‘wha’’, they don’t say ‘butter’, they say ‘bu’er’. I think that’s cool.” I explained this was a London cockney accent and even in these egalitarian times he’d be better off saying “what” not “wha’” when he went for his interview. It’s become a standing joke between us.

Watch the Breaking Barriers documentary starring Bahaa:

Five days later, Bahaa was being introduced to another British institution. He and I, along with the Breaking Barriers film crew, went to a pub in Camden Town to watch a hugely important game between Manchester City and Arsenal. The cherished position at the top of the league was at stake. No sooner had we entered the crowded pub than Bahaa was being chatted up by a couple of young women. The man’s got star quality, I smiled to myself. It was a disastrous night for Arsenal, but somehow watching the game with Bahaa and a bunch of other miserable Gooners made it a lot more bearable than if I’d been watching it from my sofa at home.

Bahaa’s Arsenal story has a wonderful postscript. I was delighted to get a call from Rosie Horton, who is Communications Manager at Breaking Barriers, and incidentally, a befriender with HostNation. Arsenal had heard about Bahaa’s story, and had a very special gift for him… a football shirt signed by the entire first team squad. When she asked me to present it to him on World Refugee Day, I didn’t hesitate. The smile on his face in the photo says it all. It’s been a privilege getting to know this remarkable man – and a bonus being able to welcome him to the Gooner fraternity.

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