IRBIL, Iraq — For a while, it seemed Nosheen Hanaan’s dream was coming true: The budding star qualified to be goalie on Syria’s national soccer team at the age of 18 after earning a reputation for his fierce blocking on al-Hurriya, a league team from the northern city of Aleppo.
But that dream crumbled as Syria descended into war. Today, 23-year-old Hanaan is a refugee and works as a waiter in a popular hotel restaurant in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.
The war, now in its fifth year, has wrecked almost every aspect of life in Syria — and sports and beloved soccer have not been spared.
Some players on the national team have fled the country, though authorities won’t give a number.
The team has managed to keep going, mainly with the patronage of President Bashar Assad’s government. Home games are impossible, so it floats between various host countries, trying to qualify for the Asian Cup and World Cup. What remains of the tightly-controlled team is said to be dominated by Assad loyalists.
“Of course, war and its impacts have affected Syrian sports,” said Maj. Gen. Mowafaq Joumaa, the head of the executive bureau at the government’s Sports Federation. “Starting with the families, they are afraid to send their sons to a sports club,” far from home.
Some Syrian national team players “joined the revolt against Assad, while others have fled the country,” James Dorsey, author of the blog The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer, noted recently.
In neighboring Lebanon, which has taken in 1.1 million Syrian refugees, a group of young Syrian soccer players formed an opposition squad in exile, hoping it will become the national team once Assad is no longer in power. The team has even played against a local club in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
Hanaan, son of an upper-middle class Kurdish family, was a local star in Aleppo from his success with al-Hurriya, as well as playing in the Asian Football Confederation Under-22 championship and the West Asian Football Federation’s Under-15 games.
When he was picked for the national team, he decided to put it on hold for two years to go to university. But he never had a chance to claim the spot: At the start of the war, he dropped out of school to help support his family.
When the opposition Free Syrian Army moved into Aleppo in the summer of 2012, government airstrikes followed, and the family had to uproot their lives.
“We fled with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We had no time to take anything with us, no pictures, nothing from inside the house,” Hanaan recalled.
They ended up in the Kurdish village of Afrin, with no jobs and no prospects. So Hanaan started walking north, toward the Turkish border. For nearly three weeks, he squatted in a barn with 12 other young men with hardly any food or water, waiting to be smuggled across. Finally, he made it into Turkey – then to Iraq.
In Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, he found the waiter job. Away from home, but safe, he can now send money back to his family in Syria.
He said he prays he’ll be reunited with them again. Iraq is “far from everything I know and love,” he said. “Even the accent here is different.”
Once a week, he kicks around a soccer ball with friends after work – usually well past midnight and without any crowds cheering him on. To sign on for an Iraqi team, its managers would have to seek permission from the government in Damascus, which is likely to be denied as he never did his required military service.
“I fear my dreams are over,” said Hanaan.