In Iraq, ex-sports stars seek to shake up politics

The National Alliance is led by Iraq’s Vice President Ayad Allawi, above, a secular Shiite, and parliamentary speaker Salim Al-Juburi, a Sunni. (AFP)
Updated 02 May 2018
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In Iraq, ex-sports stars seek to shake up politics

BAGHDAD: In the sweltering heat of Mexico ‘86, Ahmed Radhi and Basil Gorgis pulled on the same jerseys to represent Iraq’s football team in its sole World Cup Finals.
But now, a third of a century later, they’re just two of several former stars taking part in a very different contest — as parliamentary candidates in next month’s election.
While the World Cup adventure ended in dismal failure, with Iraq crashing out after losing all three of its group games, the ex-players’ appeal could be a big draw for some Iraqi voters.
“They already have fans,” says Hussein Hassan, a 45-year-old Baghdad resident. “It’s now the turn of these stars to put themselves at the service of the people.”
Distrust of politicians ahead of the May 12 vote is high, with the 15 years since the US-led toppling of former dictator Saddam Hussein marred by repeated periods of chaos and endemic corruption.
“We have more confidence in them than the politicians, who have changed nothing,” Hassan says.
It’s a view that Radhi, scorer of Iraq’s only World Cup Finals goal, takes on board.
“Iraqis need someone who shows that they are focusing on their interests, and who will work to guarantee a decent life,” the National Alliance candidate says.
The 54-year-old says his political group “brings together all communities and confessions.”
The National Alliance is led by Iraq’s Vice President Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and parliamentary speaker Salim Al-Juburi, a Sunni.
It’s a union that seeks to move beyond Iraq’s Shiite-Sunni ethnic cleavage — a major pull for the ex-footballer.
The NA’s list of candidates is liberal and “transcends confessionalism,” he says. “This is what the people want now.”
Other candidates, sporting or otherwise, have more narrow motivations.
Radhi’s former teammate Gorgis is among a list of candidates fielded by “Abna Al-Rafideyn,” a group bringing together Chaldean Christians, Assyrians and Syriacs.
Now administrator for the national team, Gorgis is running in the Kurdish city of Irbil and says he seeks to protect the interests of Christians.
Standing up for the rights of his community is also what motivates Chaker Mohammad Sabbar, another former player on Iraq’s national soccer team.
The 50-year-old, who appeared in every position except goalkeeper during his career, is Sunni, a group that’s played second fiddle to the majority Shiites since Saddam’s fall.
Sabbar says loved ones cautioned against involvement in politics, telling him it would “achieve nothing, because no change is possible.”
But their advice hasn’t stopped him running as a candidate in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province in central Iraq. Sabbar is number 10 on the list of the “Tamaddun” group, which advocates a secular state.
Sunni dominated Ramadi was seized by the Daesh group in May 2015, before being retaken by government forces less than a year later.
“The people have suffered enormously,” says Sabbar, whose family live in the region.
“Now, it’s time our interests are defended, like those of other Iraqis,” he adds.
Not all the former footballers running in the elections here are political novices.
Radhi stood in the 2014 poll and lost, while another ex-international, Hassan Farhan, is a politics and military science graduate.
“People now have more confidence in sportsmen than politicians, who have weakened the state,” says 65-year-old Farhan, who appears on a list for the secular Civil Party.
Others are determined to ensure new investment in facilities, to help the country compete again internationally in a whole range of disciplines.
“We must think about building a better future for sport,” says ex-international swimmer Sarmad Abdelilah, now a member of the National Olympic Committee and Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s “Victory Alliance.”
“There are no athletes in parliament and so there are no laws or institutions to structure Iraqi sport,” he laments.
Other contenders include Taleb Faysal, the president of Iraq’s weightlifting federation, who is on the list for former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s “Rule of Law Alliance.”
But some citizens here don’t buy into the appeal of sporting veterans.
“We have confidence in none of the candidates, because we know they will only think of themselves once in parliament,” says Imane Kazem in the capital.


‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

Updated 23 May 2018
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‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

  • As strife-torn Yemen marks its unity day, thousands of Yemeni refugees in neighboring Djibouti say they have little to cheer about
  • Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen

DUBAI: Yemen this week celebrated its national unification day, marking 28 years since the north and south were united — only to be torn apart again by the current war. 

Across the Red Sea from Yemen’s coastline, however, a forgotten segment of the country’s vast displaced population would have found little time for the festivities on Tuesday.

Thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge in a desolate, sun-baked desert camp in the tiny nation of Djibouti.

Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen. 

Associate reporting officer for the the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Djibouti, Vanessa Panaligan, told Arab News that many Yemenis had fled their homeland in search of safety. 

“From the stories I keep hearing, they were tired of seeing bombs and constant fighting in their neighborhood,” Panaligan said.

“They thought, ‘I’ve had it, we’ve stayed long enough and it’s time to get going because you never know when you are next, or if you would survive the next couple of months,’” she said.

Ali Thabit family

Shortly after the war began, Nathair Ali Thabit, 37, took his wife, Goma Salaamy, 27, and their three children, Nadi, 8, Malka, 9, and Atif, 2, and traveled to Mokha port, where he paid 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) to board a boat to Obock. They left Yemen at 8 p.m. and arrived in Djibouti the next morning. 

“We were living in Dhubab and that was on one of the fronts,” Ali Thabit said. “There were forces fighting from all directions and we were right in the middle of all of that. So one night we decided to leave everything behind — our home and belongings — and flee.”

His wife said: “We were all seasick. It was the first time we had been on a boat.”

“Now we live on handouts and rations, and I try to sell bags I sew. At least we are safe,” she said.

“The heat is also unbearable. My young child gets heat rash, he can’t handle it.”
From left, Nathair Ali Thabit, Nadi, Goma Salaamy and Malka. 

Four years of war in Yemen have displaced more than 2 million people and left 75 percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

UNHCR said there has been a spike in the number of refugees coming from Yemen in the past six months. 

From the end of last year, after the killing of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Houthi rebels, the situation deteriorated significantly, leading to “a sharp surge in new arrivals” in Djibouti. 

Almost 200 refugees arrived in December, and more than 100 in January and February. 

Panaligan said that although the influx has tapered off, the conflict shows no signs of letting up, forcing the agency to remain on standby with a contingency plan in case of an emergency influx.

“The sharp increase from what we are used to seeing is definitely a cause for alarm,” Panaligan said. “We’re planning for an emergency.” 

In 2015, 38,000 Yemenis traveled to Djibouti. However, due to the harsh living conditions, many left to go elsewhere, while others returned to Yemen. The current population of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti is almost 4,000 — of which 1,695 live at the Markazi refugee camp in the port town of Obock.

Refugees arrive in Obock and are then sent to reception centers, where they are registered, and given food and water before being sent to Markazi camp. 

Meha Abdul Sala

The 35-year-old mother lives in the camp with her daughter Asiah, 11. She had to sell all her gold to pay $560 to get her three children and herself to Obock in 2015. 

“We had no choice because of the war,” Abdul Saleh said. “At least it’s safe in the camp. I was happy and comfortable in my country, I wish I could go back. I had a shop. It helped me look after my children. I’m divorced. But because of this war we had to throw all that away. Now I make bags to sell to earn some money. But sometimes I don’t have enough money to buy thread, so I have to wait until something comes along.

“I try to sell bags to try and earn money to get food for my children. The food they give us is enough to get by, but it’s not the same when you have your own money.”

Aisha said that she attends school at the camp, but also helps her mother make the bags. “I like to play with skipping ropes. I miss my country and my friends,” she said.

The tiny coastal country is home to more than 22,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, making up 2.5 percent of its 900,000 population. 

Houssein Hassan Darar, executive secretary of the Office of National Assistance for Refugees and Displaced Persons (ONARS), proudly explained his country’s history of helping other nationalities.

Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti had welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from nations including Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, he said. 

In response to the growing refugee population, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh signed two decrees in December to allow better access to social services and employment.

 

The government said it was building a new school for refugees in Obock.

Refugees with teaching experience are able to work in the existing schools, and are paid and trained by Djibouti’s education ministry, Panaligan said. 

In Markazi camp, most of the population is under the age of 18, but fewer than 300 primary students and 20 secondary students are enrolled in school.

Despite attempts to house the influx of Yemeni refugees, living conditions in the camp are harsh. 

When Arab News visited the camp in Obock last year, many refugees were living in tents made of thin fabric to protect them from the desert environment and endured scorching temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius as well as sandstorms. 

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center built 300 housing units in January to ease their suffering, spokesman Dr. Samer Al-Jatili told Arab News. 

Ali Ibrahim

The 51-year-old father was relatively lucky and managed to get his family of 11 on a boat to Obock without having to pay.

“As soon as we arrived at the Djibouti port, they welcomed us,” he said. “The (government officials) were very kind to us. They gave us water, food and blankets. We stayed in the port for one night. The next day they sent us to the camp.

“Life here is at least safe. We get rations, but the most important thing is safety. They give us water, oil, lentils, flour, rice. 

“They give us gas and some pans to cook with, but it’s not enough, so we have to go to the mountains to get wood. 

“We are not used to this life — we grew up with electricity, gas and proper cookers. But we have to deal with this to survive.

Ali Ibrahim said his village in Yemen was near a military camp and close to the fighting.

“There was fire from all directions. We didn’t even get a chance to take anything with us, we left everything behind. The whole neighborhood left together.

“If there is stability and safety in Yemen, I would return. But I would rather die here than go back to the war.”

The housing units hold two rooms. One is the living space, with a kitchen and living room, while the other is the sleeping area. A small closet holds a shower area, and the floor lifts up to work as a toilet. 

However, the camp lacks running water and electricity.

Panaligan said that of the 300 housing units, 250 were given to families and 50 to single people. An average family has five or six members.

Refugees are given food rations, but many have said it is not enough. The UNHCR reported that in the past few months, about 164 refugees at Markazi were at risk of malnutrition.

Nathair Ali Thabit, 34, who has a family of five, told Arab News last year that refugees get two meals a day, but no meat or vegetables. 

“We have bread and tea in the morning and in the evening rice,” Thabit said. “I haven’t tasted meat, chicken or fish in two years.

“My children sometimes want biscuits or milk, so I try to distract them by taking them to the beach and playing with them.

“We are in the middle of nowhere, so there’s not much we can do” he said. 

“We cry in our hearts — we don’t show anyone, we just cry to God.”

Panaligan said that despite the challenges of life in Djibouti, Yemeni refugees come for safety, which is missing in their homeland. 

“Many have come to join their families who left Yemen last year, too,” she said. 

FACTOID

Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen