In the first of our Forest Pitch player interviews Mohamad Najib Nehab tells WAFA how football helped him settle in Scotland after he had to leave Afghanistan, where he was under attack for his work to improve women’s rights.
Forest Pitch, two football matches to be played on a specially created pitch in Selkirk, is one of Scotland’s biggest contributions to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. An interview with Craig Coulthard, the artist behind the project, can be found here.
An interview with player Alison O’Neil, who told WAFA about her research into the business of football and why looking after the World and European champions is a nice break from studying, can be found here.
It’s remarkable how composed a man can remain whilst describing having to flee his home in fear for his life.
Mohamad Najib Nehab was a member of an international humanitarian organisation trying to improve women’s rights and education in Kabul in 2010, when the Taliban tried to kill him:
“I was driving down a busy street, and a car had been following me. I slowed to let it past, and it came beside me. The passenger brought the window down.
“He took out a gun. I hid my head in my hands, and he shot at me.”
The gunman missed, and then sped off to disappear in the hubbub of Kabul. Mohamad took cover in a nearby shop. He describes his survival as: “A miracle time.”
Alongside his volunteer work, Mohamad coached the national gymnastics team and played football for Shewa FC in the top tier of Afghanistan football with a number of players from the Afghan national team.
But it was his work to improve the lives and social standing of women that lead to him, and his wife and three children, having to run away from their home.
First the Taliban spread rumours that Mohamad was a spy. When this failed to scare him off, they upped the pressure:
“The Taliban were saying I was converting Muslim women to Christianity,” he explains. To illustrate the danger of this accusation he points out that Afghans have been sentenced to death for converting to Christianity.
Mohamad defiantly remained true to his motto that: “You have to support other people,” and refused to stop working. Finally, after the failed assassination attempt, he fled first to Pakistan, then Britain.
Having arrived at Heathrow airport, Mohamad was kept in detention for almost 50 days. His first two asylum applications were rejected. Finally, at the third attempt, someone bothered to get in touch with the humanitarian organisation he’d be working for:
“I had to get my lawyer to email the head office in Dublin, and they could say who I was. Nobody believed me until then.”
He was then sent to Petershill YMCA in Glasgow and then given a flat in Cardonald. But his family remain in Pakistan:
“It’s frustrating. My eldest daughter (8-years-old) used to ask me: ‘why are you not here?’ and ‘when are you coming here?’ It’s difficult to tell a child about the attack, so I told her I had a visa problem, and a judge would say when I can come. Now she asks: ‘When will the judge say you can come?”
Although Mohamad remains as calm as ever whilst talking about potentially devastating situations, subtle changes in his voice and face reveal his passion for his family.
The 39-year-old has two ways to deal with the emotional trauma he lives every day. The first is medicine: “I have sleeping pills. If I didn’t I wouldn’t sleep, because I worry about my family and my case.”
And the second? “I like to keep myself busy.” Mohamad has stuck to his ethos of helping others. He’s not yet allowed to work in the UK, so he uses his spare time for volunteer work, helping out at St Mungo Museum.
But the view from Mohamad’s top floor flat in the Tarfside high-rises hints at the other way he fills his time. Looking east towards Glasgow city centre, the red brick facade of Ibrox’s Bill Struth Main Stand is an unmistakeable football icon.
“I like Spanish football,” he says, cracking a beaming smile. “I’m a defender, and if there was a player I’d like to be like its Gerry (sic) Pique.”
Playing football was the perfect way for Mohamad to integrate in the new city, an activity resembling normality when so much in his life had changed so rapidly, a way to ground himself and lay down roots:
“I was playing at Petershill [YMCA], and one of the guys [from Glasgow Afghan United FC] was there and he said you should come.”
When Mohamad first went to play with Glasgow Afghan United FC they were a group of friends who trained and played together, rather than a team. With Mohamad’s help as an experienced player/coach they agreed on a name and entered the Scottish Unity League.
Now seven of the Glasgow Afghan United FC players will take part in Forest Pitch. Although the event is bringing together players from many different cultures, Mohamad says there has been little time for small talk when there’s serious football to be played:
“We’ve had two training sessions so far, but we mainly talk about football. I don’t know about everyone’s [past] so well.”
But that isn’t to say the players are blind to the bigger idea behind the project: “It’s good to bring players from so many places, to bring the fans and the players together.”
The participants in Forest Pitch are bonding and making new friends. But not through a unifying sense of loss, or feeling like outsiders in a new country, simply through a shared love of football.