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Afghan Ronaldinho on a Candy Wrapper

There were no balls around to play with in 2008 so the passionate little eight-year-old, Bilal, from Pervan, Afghanistan collected many useless pieces of fabrics and rolled them into a ball. He played with it for a long time until it was smashed.

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Although occasional tranquillity in the country let the shops eventually sell balls, Bilal was not able to play with one due to the severe restrictions of his adoptive family. Secretly, he played with other children’s balls instead.

Bilal* is now with us in Dervish Baba Social Cooperation and Solitary Association, which is a non-profit organisation with its volunteers helping people in need regardless of their nationality, ethnic background, religion, gender or political views. It becomes a shelter for anyone who comes across it, passes by, stops off and asks for help. Every single day many people, as distinctive as they are similar in their own stories, cross paths. Under this roof, where different kind of favours are offered, there are those rare stories of worn out, grief-stricken yet young, passionate and hopeful hearts to which Dervish Baba is happiest to reach out to, to keep faith alive, and to make dreams come true.

Bilal’s is a tired yet promising story that Dervish Baba touched. Today, he is a 16-year-old Afghani boy whose life is a tragic novel with the very precious light of a dream at the very heart of it. The dream helps him keep going. This dream is to play football and become a famous football player.

Back in Afghanistan, Bilal was taken care of by district imam after his house was bombed and all his family members killed. He was only six months old then. As Bilal says, the imam who was biased to the Taliban regime turned out to be a very cruel man. Bilal worked all day long as a child, bringing all his money to the imam, but still he was often severely punished for every little mistake. What made him go on was his passion, which no one in his adoptive family was supposed to know about? Bilal was secretly playing football in the neighbourhood, and he was very good at it.

In Afghanistan, a tortured land far away from the world of comfort, far away from all the facilities that a child can possibly reach, for the first time Bilal saw a ball on the TV screen inside the only shop of his village. He would buy an ice cream and eat it outside the shop, gazing hypnotised through the window at Ronaldinho’s golden moves, while all of the ice cream was melting over his hands. It was not long before he would gaze at Ronaldinho’s pictures on some candy wrappers and all his friends started calling him “Bilal the Ronaldinho”. One day Bilal finally managed to gather his courage and asked the imam to buy him a ball. When the imam rejected and threatened him, Bilal protested and refused to eat anything. In a bright moment of fate, pushed by his older wife, the imam finally fulfilled his wish. Bilal got a ball and the first real step was taken toward the big dream. He was allowed to play with it only once because of the imam’s fears of social judgment.

Though Bilal had been forced to work outside even when his child body was trembling with a 40-degree fever, and was never given any kind of freedom, this little child of ten had to face a grown up decision: to stay in his homeland without much hope for bigger changes or to risk it all and hit the road for other lands, better opportunities and a brighter future.

One evening he finally decided. He packed some cheese and nuts and left home with no one waving behind him. Bilal said that he doesn’t remember how long the trip took because of various difficulties, but in the end he managed to get to Pakistan. There he found a job as a shepherd, and he kept doing this for only food and shelter for next three years. He had a peaceful environment there, but at the age of 13 he needed some money to set up his own life. When the owner of the farm definitely refused to pay for his work, Bilal decided to leave again and go after a better job, which would pay him and let him reach his dream eventually. The next stop was Iran where he worked as a cook for Afghan construction workers.

However, Bilal’s misfortunes did not stop there. One day in 2014, when Bilal was 14, he went to a market to buy the ingredients for dinner and a car approached him with four men who claimed to be the police. He had no choice but to listen.

“My heart told me that they were not police. My heart told me to run. But as I intended to run, they made me faint”, said Bilal.

When he opened his eyes, he found himself at a very rich table with the most delicious food he had ever seen in his life. He had to eat it then he fainted again. The next time he opened his eyes he found himself in Aleppo. He understood that he had been captured and drugged by ISIS. Several days later, he was holding a Kalashnikov on the frontline of an army in a battlefield. But Bilal wasn’t able to shoot another man.

“I never shot anyone. I always missed the target on purpose. It was weird that I never got shot though all the soldiers were killed right next to me. That’s why they always put me on the front. It is a very big sin! How can I kill someone?” asked Bilal.

After many months Bilal realised he could not stand the tension any more; he had to run away. But, as he said, if ISIS realised this, they would kill him in a very cruel way with no hesitation. One day, in a strange twist of fate, a moment of big explosion created a cloud of dust and Bilal instinctively started to run away, as fast as he could. It was the autumn of 2016 and he managed to escape the torture of ISIS.

But the freedom didn’t last for long, and the Syrian Army soon captured him, this time to fight for them for another four months. As Bilal stated, some commanders in the army pitied him, realising that an Afghan boy has no place in their war and they decided to let him go. In search of a land without war where finally he might freely play football, Bilal ran to Turkey. He came to Istanbul.

By the age of 16, Bilal had overcome many hardships, fought many wars and walked many roads. He was not one of those guys who was taken to a football club by his loving parents; he did not have money to buy sports magazines; he could not comment on the latest world cup match like his many peers. He had only one ball, which he deserved; he had one dream and he just played soccer whenever he could, secretly.

“I only want to play football, inshallah (if God permits) I can show my skills to a football club,” said Bilal.

One day in Istanbul, while wandering all over the town, he bumped into Dervish Baba after he heard that free food was available there. One of the Dervish Baba founders, Ali Denizci, and a volunteer Volkan Demirci, welcomed him.

“Dervish Baba gave me food and some money. They gave me medicine when I was sick in the winter. May God bless Ali Denizci and Volkan Demirci! Volkan abi (brother) took off his new pullover and gave it to me when I was shivering with cold,” said Bilal to express his feelings of gratitude.

He has many friends here now. He eats his food and wears his clothes from Dervish Baba. He has a mobile phone in one pocket and some money to spend his day in another. His official papers are being taken care of by the volunteers. Once the official papers are ready, Dervish Baba intends to find him a football club, which does not want to miss this young man who has seen the worst and never hesitated to take another step to his dream.

A devoted volunteer, Volkan Demirci, who is responsible for the management and the café of Dervish Baba states that once Bilal found a wallet on the street and submitted it to Dervish Baba. It was very touching for him to witness this kind of behaviour from a homeless young boy and he added:

“Bilal is helping us a lot here. The volunteers are trying their best to deal with his official papers for his football career. I can really see that he wants to play football since he is taking very good care of his body; he doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol. He played in Alibeyköyspor Football Club for a week but could not continue due to official registration issues. He deserves more than he receives. He is a decent man and we want to help him!”

Dervish Baba Social Cooperation and Solitary Association is a shelter for those in need and provides help and assistance for at least 1000 people on a daily basis.

The organisation provides daily fresh food for anyone who is hungry and it also provides clothes for those in need. Dervish Baba is particularly sensitive to children’s needs and it provides them both moral and material support; gives them school materials; takes care of their physical and psychological health; and takes them to number of cultural and artistic events. Dervish Baba also teaches Turkish lessons to immigrants helping them to have a better dialogue and live more in harmony with their new surroundings.

Dervish Baba volunteers are touching the lives of human beings, like Bilal, in order to help and be human. They strongly believe that helping someone is not just a privilege, but the first rule of existing as a human. Therefore, Dervish Baba keeps open its eyes and ears open because it knows that there are more people out there to reach.

Like many others who are waiting for help, Bilal said: “I am smiling, yet my heart is crying.”

If you see, if you hear, then you are responsible! This remains our organisation’s main motto that makes us go ahead.

* The full name is known by the organisation.

This article is a part of the TACSO Project Storytelling Capacity Building Activity in which Dervish Baba participated from May to July 2017. The TACSO Regional Office in Sarajevo organised the Storytelling Capacity Building Activity for CSOs interested in additionally improving their communication and storytelling skills. The activity included one-on-one coaching and mentoring through online channels such as Skype, Facebook and e-mail, during which time a number of topics were discussed and approached through various practical exercises.