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Iran (I): I’d like to introduce you to someone. . . .

by TheAnfieldWrap // 4 June 2014 // 72 Comments

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By Martin Fitzgerald

I’D LIKE TO INTRODUCE YOU TO SOMEONE.

His name is Ebi and he’s from Iran.

Ebi was born in Tehran in 1980, a year after the National Revolution and just two weeks before Iran got caught up in a war with Iraq that would last the next eight years.

This is the context that Ebi was born into.

A child doesn’t notice context though, context only becomes relevant in later life.

A child only notices his streets, his neighbourhood, his friends, his family.

Ebi’s childhood was full of all those things – children making their own entertainment, playing out, devouring every inch of the locality and knowing it as home.

Ebi played football. Ebi played football for hours on the streets of Tehran.

And then a child starts to notice.

A visit from relatives in Germany, relatives with toys, relatives with material from another world.

Terminator, The Pink Panther and Tom & Jerry. Images that weren’t from home.

And then a child starts to notice.

We, me and my friends, we started to think that people in the west were living in a happier way. We felt the limits in Iran, we felt we weren’t free

The teenage Ebi met girls. The teenage Ebi then realised he wasn’t allowed to meet girls, realised he couldn’t walk down the street with girls.

As you get older you start to notice the things you’re not allowed to do, the girls and boys go to separate schools, you’re kept apart.

His friend had an illegal VHS player. They did what teenage boys the world over do, they waited until his parents went away and they watched a video.

Secretly, furtively, checking the doors to make sure unwanted parents aren’t home early.

They watched Titanic. They watched Titanic and they cried.

Well played, Celine Dion.

His name is Ebi and he’s a footballer.

Football. You were allowed to watch football in Iran.

In 1990, Ebi watched the World Cup. In 1990 Ebi watched Maradona for the first time.

He was like my hero, my everything

At aged 11 his Dad took him off the streets and registered Ebi for a summer football school. 11-a-side, pitches, coaches, tactics – organised football.

Ebi played every position and settled on midfield. Everything revolving around Ebi, his head spinning.

Ebi was good, Ebi was a footballer.

Football as a way out, a distraction from life. A familiar story.

I was really trying hard, I really wanted it.

Ebi went through the system – under 15s, under 17s, under 19s. An unstoppable force, making the grade at each level.

Ebi was proud, Ebi was achieving.

And then Ebi got what he wanted.

He signed for Niroo Zamini FC, the army’s team in the Azadegan League, Iran’s equivalent of The Championship.

Just one more goal, the next step up – the Iran pro-league.

There were trials, there were near misses, but the Pro League proved one step too far. Contemporaries of his were getting signed, moving on.

His friend Masoud Shojaei got a move to La Liga to play for Osasuna.

His friend Rahman Ahmadi got called up by the national team to play in goal.

You’ll be able to follow Ebi’s friends Masoud and Rahman at the World Cup this year in Brazil.

Ebi still tried though, he didn’t give up easily, despite the movement around him.

It was my everything.

There’s that phrase again.

Ebi (far right) with his friends in Tehran in 1998

Ebi (far right) with his friends in Tehran in 1998

His name is Ebi and he’s a refugee.

Two bad injuries later and increasingly it looks like football isn’t a way out.

Finally, he gives up. The dream he had let football become was over. He got a job working for his uncle. Back down to earth.

And then a child notices.

It happened very suddenly, I wasn’t a political person.

The 2009 election in Iran was an opportunity to change things but the change didn’t come. Allegations of voter corruption and bribery – democracy as an illusion.

The morning after the result was announced Ebi was travelling from North West Tehran to South West Tehran. He comes across a huge demonstration on behalf of the opposition parties.

Ebi understands the protest

Where is our vote, everyone understood this to be corrupt

Ebi phones work – “I’m not coming in today, I’m busy

Ebi never goes to work again.

Every day for two weeks, Ebi goes to wherever the protest is and demonstrates.

Every day for two weeks, Ebi sees people getting shot, people being arrested.

It was like hell, you didn’t know what was going to happen the next minute.

Why didn’t you just forget about it and go back to work?

I was angry, like everyone else, we were all angry. Millions didn’t care, they carried on going back to work. But I was trying to change something, I was trying.

The national TV coverage distorted and sanitised the protest, alternating points of view that there was no protest and any unrest was the fault of outsiders intent on trouble.

I didn’t care anymore, you get to the point, you go to the street and see all these things and then watch it on TV and it’s a different story.

But, via satellite, Ebi started to watch the BBC. Ebi started to watch CNN.

They were telling the other side of the story, Ebi’s side of the story.

Fresh motivation, a message being carried to the wider world. Someone was watching.

I wanted Iranians abroad to come back home, come and fight for our country.

There was momentum in the Western media, something had to happen, something had to be resolved.

This was the story.

But then Michael Jackson died. And then that was the story.

Michael Jackson died and the media moved on to something else.

Momentum lost. The story over. Suppressed internally and externally.

Word got to Ebi that he had been recognised. People were looking for him.

He disappeared, took refuge in his own country and waited it out. He heard they came to his family’s house, intent on finding him.

This is when I understood this is real.

He knew he had to leave, he knew he couldn’t wait it out.

He escaped in a lorry and crossed the border to Turkey and spent a few days trying to work out what to do with his life. The advice was simple – stay in Turkey or think of something else, you can’t come back.

His decision wasn’t his, his decision was made for him by people with access to limited opportunities. That decision was England.

With help from the exiled Iranian community in Turkey, Ebi secures a fake passport and flies to Heathrow.

Within two days of arrival he walks into a London police station and speaks the only words in English he has learnt – “I am a refugee.

They don’t believe him. “You’re dressed too smart”, they said.

The whole process from stumbling across the demonstration on the way to work to arriving in London is no more than four weeks.

Again – “It happens very suddenly, I wasn’t a political person.

But then a child notices.

Ebi is sent to Birmingham whereupon he undergoes a four-month process to state his case. Ebi is successful, Ebi is granted refugee status. He can stay.

Well played, Birmingham.

18 months later he walks into Seetickets, where I work, and asks for a job.

His English is much better now and he’s been here ever since.

Terms like “refugee”, “asylum seeker”, they’ve become at best empty, at worst loaded.

But what must it feel like to be displaced? To be different?

In Ebi’s first winter in England you may have found him shouting at ducks in a lake.

You may have thought he was mad, you may have thought he was drunk, you would have been forgiven for thinking he was different.

But Ebi had never seen ducks swimming in a semi-frozen lake before.

Ebi was trying to save the ducks.

So those bloody refugees, eh? Having the courage to stand up for what they believe in, leaving everything they’ve ever known and loved to flee for their lives, coming over here and shouting at our ducks, OUR BRITISH DUCKS!

The nerve of them.

His name is Ebi and he supports Iran

Of all the nations that have qualified for the World Cup do you know which one had the highest attendances during the group stages?

It was Iran, over 100,000 watched every group game at home.

Iran is football-mad. Ebi is football-mad.

And despite everything, Ebi has clung on to football.

From the streets of Tehran, to the summer school, to the grass pitches, to Niroo Zamini FC, to finally being here in England looking forward to the World Cup – Ebi has clung on to football.

It’s never left him and he is right behind his team, a team that includes his former friends.

A successful Iran would create a positive image. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people. All you hear are the bad things.

Ebi has been victim of racism and prejudice since he came to the west.

If they do well, it makes us look better than we look now. Maybe it will change people’s opinions.

More than anything else though, Ebi wants them to do well for the people he left behind.

It will make the people happy. It will be the product of the people and the talent, not a production of the government.

It will make the people happy.

I’d like to introduce you to someone. His name is Ebi:

Ebi Present Day

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72 Comments

  1. Absolutely brilliant.

  2. I’m raising the glass to Ebi tonight. Brilliant article and massive respect to the man himself.

  3. Thank you for telling this story, and for telling it so well.

  4. Brilliant.

  5. Fantastic piece.

    Thank you for sharing Ebi’s amazing story!

  6. I’ve just read this again. It’s so fantastic. Say hi to Ebi for me.

  7. This great story gives context to the words ‘asylum seeker’ and shows that people who need to escape their homes do not do so lightly.  Well done TAW well done Martin and thank you for sharing.

  8. Great piece – perhaps the best I’ve read on what the World Cup can actually mean. Well in Ebi.

  9. Fantastic article Martin. Imagine if the mass media could put this perspective across, instead of their usual hateful spiel

  10. Quite possibly the best piece of writing you’ll read this World Cup.

  11. Brilliant, Martin. Absolutely brilliant, heartbreaking and hopeful in equal measure.

  12. A remarkable story, fantastically told. A top piece, Martin.

  13. Outstanding work.

  14. Great story ebi, best of luck in the future

  15. Thanks for making me cry at work. Brilliant article, I’m now supporting Iran as my second team. Thank you for introducing us all to Ebi.

  16. A nice piece, well written, thought provoking and uplifting. It certainly made me smile on what has otherwise been a fairly mundane-leaning-heavily-towards-shite day…

  17. Utterly brilliant and humbling. Come on England? Perhaps, come on Iran.

  18. I loved that. Thanks very much.

  19. Thanks for all the nice comments everyone. Ebi is delighted that so many of you have read his story

  20. Absolutely superb article Martin. Will be keeping a keen eye on Iran’s competition, knowing that Ebi is shouting at the TV as if it were a British duck.

  21. Made my Monday night this. Thank you.

  22. Brought a tear to my eye that. I teach and once had a student who was an asylum seeker. He was homeless but managed to pass his Access course (sleeping rough, studying in the library, getting washed in the college bathroom) and then went on to University. He graduated and now has a professional job. I tell everyone who moans about ‘bloody asylum seekers’ about him.

    • We all need people to moan about and the fact that refugees, immigrants an asylum seekers bearing the brunt of it bothers me greatly. That person is a true inspiration if only everybody could be like them.

  23. This was an absolute brilliant read. Concise, thought provoking and uplifting.

  24. Very moving. Very humbling. Certainly puts things into context.
    Than you for sharing Ebi’s story.

  25. What football and the World Cup is all about. Absolutely brilliant. Another glass raised to Ebi here.

  26. ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.

  27. Cried. Fabulous article and story. Here’s to Ebi and Iran!

  28. Amazing story, well written. Good luck Ebi lad.

  29. Fantastic writing and even better story Martin and Ebi. Takes a story like this to really humanise Iran for many, including myself, in the west. Its an amazing thing that something so basic like football can transcend so many greater issues, even if only for a short time

  30. Absolutely brilliant piece. Very moving.

  31. Thanks for this story!

  32. Beautifully written and heart warming story. Well done

  33. Terrific article – it’s the reason I cycled to the 92 grounds in England and why my colleague cycled from Norway to South Africa. To raise awareness of the plight of genuine refugees.

    Thanks for highlighting this case which has a happy ending. Sadly millions do not!

    Respect

  34. 1st comment i’ve ever posted anywhere ever..

    found this via the guardian..

    really excellent article..
    wish there were more people writing like this

  35. absolute cracker of read.

  36. Fume, rant, gurgle, gasp, splutter implode.

  37. Superb story. YNWA Ebi and Iran.

  38. I’m tempted to print this story and leave it in public places for people to stumble upon and read.
    It just seems like a story that would be heard and appreciated all over.

  39. Great article !! Thank you

  40. Fantastic piece of writing about a fantastic man.

    Thanks for this.

  41. Makes a change to what we mostly read, this is a true life story, if people stopped ……… Just for a minute, ask your kids to look around, see what they have, then get them to read the first part of this fantastic article, little sods don’t know how lucky they are!!!! YNWA Ebi

  42. What an absolutely brilliant story. Now that it’s linked on the guardian hopefully more people will read it, because this definitely deserves a big audience. Well done Martin.

  43. A really emotional story told so very well. Good luck Ebi!

  44. Nice one Martin – you really captured a facet of refugee experience

    btw
    - they have machines for putting tickets in envelopes!
    - have ever I told how I escaped Stoke?

  45. Ebi your courage and determination are an inspiration. For those who hate those who seek a better life outside the terror of their own homeland this story should act as a wake up call. I hope your freedom is bright Ebi and that Iran gains it’s freedom from tyranny, it’s people deserve better. Fabulous article Martin.

  46. I can’t find words that would be enough to appreciate this amount of vision, awareness, sensibility, Social Consciousness and kindness of you lovely human beings. You have no idea how much motivation I have since I realize that this article express even very small part of the reality in Iran , (kindly written by Mr Martin Fitzgerald). When I see the genuine comments on my page in twitter and below this article , I feel less useless, since lot’s of Iranian activists who got caught and still are in prison or has been executed. Lets all CHEER for all the people who fight for freedom.

    • I suppose you remind us that we should all be more aware of and more grateful for so much that we take for granted, and more mindful of the stupid shit millions upon millions of people have to live with every day. Britain should welcome the likes of yourself in the droves.

      I’m pretty sure everyone who reads this will be rooting for Iran at the World Cup now.

  47. Wow, what a great, powerful and hard-hitting story. Hope Ebi enjoys the World Cup.

  48. You are the anti-Daily Mail. I salute you.

    From a Stevenage fan.

  49. Ebi jan moafagh bashi. Great read thank you.

  50. Thank you for this piece; emblematic of the greatest sport on earth; that is less of a sport and more of a way of life, a way to bring nations and people closer to each other and remind them that a round ball and ninety minutes can contain enough magic to restore one’s faith in humanity. Wishing you success Ebi.

  51. You are the spirit of young Iranian hope!

  52. All the best to Iran and Ebi. Harrowing to read such a story. I am lucky enough to have received amazing Iranian hospitality in my life. Hopefully things keep getting better for Iran and his friends and family back home. I would love to say ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, I wish it was true every day, but I wish him all the best. Good luck for the tournament.

    “A successful Iran would create a positive image. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people. All you hear are the bad things.”

    So true, Iran is an amazing place that leaves a long lasting impression on those who visit.

  53. Simply beautiful xx

  54. This brought tears to my eyes. I wish the situation in Iran would improve so that people could live free and without fear there and would not have to endure the heartbreak to be driven away from their home, loved ones and friend. I wish you all the best, Ebi – health, love and a happy life.

  55. Great story, thank you.
    Thank you also to Ebi for standing up to tyranny and still loving his country.
    Good luck to Iran, the oppressed there are deserving of some good news!

  56. Hello Ebi, I am Jake (extended hand is offered).

  57. Ebi jaan, tashakoor. You’ll Never Walk Alone :)

  58. Thank you for giving Ebi a voice. I am not sure I am overly enamoured with the slightly condescending tone of the biography, but I congratulate you for taking the time to paint a picture of a human being of courage and endeavour.
    I have met Ebi through a mutual friend on numerous occasions and the the abiding impression one is left with is of an exceptional young man. He has never looked for handouts and has taken any work he could find as he tries to build a life for himself. Given the opportunities, he is capable of and deserves to succeeding at the highest level.

    • Please disregard the pretentious drivel I posted yesterday.
      Sincere appologies for any implied criticism of the original article, it makes the point very well.
      Mental note to self: don’t engage in social media when you’re pissed!!

  59. British Red Cross have released a graphic novel about a man’s escape from Iran for Refugee Week
    :)

    http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2014/june/red-cross-graphic-novel

  60. That’s it. I’m supporting Iran at the World Cup.

    Ebi, YNWA

  61. Great piece, excellent writing and Ebi sounds like someone you would want to know, to have as a acquaintance, friend or colleague, to expand your world and perhaps help to open up his also.

    Well done!

  62. Thank you for sharing Ebi’s amazing, and inspiring, story. There is football. There is the World Cup. And then there are extraordinary human stories of people and their incredible relationship with the game we love. Thank you for capturing Ebi’s story so beautifully.

  63. That is a cracker of an article my friend, an absolute cracker. Football writing? That’s why I love this game.

    Good luck to you Ebi. With the spirit you have I am sure there are good things coming your way, at least I hope they do. A friend of mine recently came back from Iran and said that the people there were the friendliest he had ever met.

    I have not seen Iran play … actually ever, but now I will have them as my “heart team” for this world cup.

    Well done Martin and good luck Ebi and Iran.

  64. What a fantastic story. Well done mate and welcome to the UK.

  65. What a fantastic story and one every child /person can identify with it….Ebi should be brought round schools to tell his story to counteract all the s…. kids get from our wonderful free media! the power of the human story far outweighs anything coming out of a politician ‘s mouth ! this is how to counter racism ..it’s based on people not knowing the real person and when they do their views are transformed !

    good luck..

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