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Football for peace

columns Updated: Sep 18, 2010 23:33 IST
Tithiya Sharma
Tithiya Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Around the world in 54 weeks

Destination 13: london

The queue for immigration at London’s Heathrow Airport is the longest I’ve ever seen. Refugees, students, workers; nervously holding their passports and immigration forms, inching forward slowly to have their documents checked.

In the hour that I stood there waiting my turn, I saw passports from Sudan, Mexico, Israel, UAE, Algeria, Fiji and China. Refugees, students, workers and travellers trying unsuccessfully to mask their excitement, paranoia, fear, and apprehension: my first hour in the UK really set the tone for my time there.

Everybody here is from someplace else

I met Yamam Nabeel in the colourful and cool Borough Market in London Bridge. Yamam was born in Baghdad, Iraq and is the son of a distinguished academic couple who were thought leaders in the Iraqi intellectual society. Their outspokenness and critique of the regime eventually drove them out of their home country.

After living out of suitcase for more than a year, Yamam and his family arrived in Hungary. He experienced the plight of being an isolated foreigner in a strange new land while in school there. In the late eighties, he narrowly survived a brutal racist attack by a sizeable mob in broad daylight.

Yamam’s family relocated to the United Kingdom in hope of finding a more stable base. Yamam worked to carve a niche for himself as a sports journalist. At the age of 27, a chance meeting with Bernd Stange, a German football manager sparked an idea that Yamam has turned into an amazing success.

The two had an instant connect in their approach to peace-building and conflict resolution. From their conversations, an idea was born to bring the Iraqi national football team for a UK tour. After nine months of planning and paper work — in May 2004 — the Iraqi national team was able to tour the UK and play three key games. Yamam says that he was sure it would be simple to adapt the experience of football to the world and life in general. “We are faced with conflicts that divide and destroy. Our aim is to combat these divides through the global appeal of football, using the game to bring people from different ethnic, racial and social backgrounds together.”

Encouraged by the support he received, Yamam established ‘Football for Unity’. A not for profit initiative credited for bringing together Muslims and the wider British society through the power of the ‘Beautiful Game’. Following the London tube bombings FC Unity was the only organisation to host a community event to commemorate the 7/7/7 Anniversary. The annual ‘Unity Cup’ has become a huge success with more than a hundred multi-ethnic teams registering for this year’s event. Yamam prefers to avoid labelling the participating teams, saying “the core aim has been to cross ethnic and religious barriers and to unite against terrorism, extremism and Islamophobia.”

The organisation works to integrate minority communities into mainstream British society through debates and lectures on Multiculturalism, Leadership training and encouraging Active Citizenship.

In July 2008, the FC Unity Hope Tour was launched in Iraq, designed as a programme to use football as a strategy for youth development, peace-building, and employment opportunities for Iraq’s young at-risk population. Yamam returned to his home country after 28 years in Exile, to watch, even if fleetingly- young Iraqis of all backgrounds united in the feeling of new hope for a return to normal life.

Yamam hopes to carry this message of peace and hope to other war torn regions across the world like Sudan, Somalia, the DRC and Afghanistan.

(Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way. To follow Tithiya's journey, log on to )