Soccer Lifts Spirits of Africans Illegally in Turkey A 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Nigeria organizes an annual African soccer championship in Istanbul to improve the image of illegal immigrants in Turkey, to provide an opportunity for Africans to network and to have fun.
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Soccer Lifts Spirits of Africans Illegally in Turkey

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Soccer Lifts Spirits of Africans Illegally in Turkey

Soccer Lifts Spirits of Africans Illegally in Turkey

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Turkey is one of the most heavily traveled transit routes for illegal immigrants trying to enter the European Union from Third World countries. Aid workers have seen large numbers of Africans appearing for the first time in the streets and ghettos of Istanbul. Fed up with being the targets of discrimination and police harassment, some of these Africans have banded together to try to improve their image and have a good time by playing soccer. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

The second annual African Community Soccer Championship is under way this month at a small stadium on a hilltop in Istanbul.

(Soundbite of soccer game, whistle)

WATSON: Eight teams are competing, among them, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and Congo. At this recent match between Ghana and Sudan, the players spoke a mixture of Turkish, Arabic, English and Akan, one of Ghana's more than 70 ethnic languages, as they lined up to shake hands before the game.

(Soundbite of various languages spoken)

WATSON: Each team was accompanied by raucous supporters, like these Ghanaian women who waved their country's flag and sang songs.

(Soundbite of women singing in foreign language)

WATSON: This is not your typical amateur soccer league championship, though. To start with, almost all of the players and fans here are illegal immigrants.

Mr. DONALD SAMPSON(ph) (Organizer, African Community Soccer Championship): Of course, someone that is in the country we ...(unintelligible) residence from is called illegal. So majority of us, that's what we are.

WATSON: Donald Sampson first organized this championship last year. The 23-year-old is himself an illegal immigrant from Nigeria.

Mr. SAMPSON: The image of Africans in this country, most people pay a lot of attention to the negative side of it. We think, by doing this, it's going to portray an image about us.

WATSON: The presence of thousands of Africans in Istanbul is a relatively new phenomenon.

Mr. BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN (Author): The harder it got to enter the European Union through legal and also illegal ways, the more Africans came to Turkey to use Turkey as a transit country to enter the European Union.

WATSON: Behzad Yaghmaian is the author of an upcoming book on illegal migration through Turkey. He says most of the Africans in Istanbul were trying to escape poverty, unemployment and conflict in their home countries when they unwittingly got stuck here. Yaghmaian says Turkey does not have the resources either to deport or to support these illegal immigrants.

Mr. YAGHMAIAN: There are no resources, there's no money. Africans--migrants as a whole suffer from poverty, lack of food, lack of medicine and health care. And, of course, there are millions of Turks that suffer from the same problems.

WATSON: Standing on the sidelines at the Ghana-Sudan game was Rashid Adibyo(ph), a 24-year-old Nigerian who says he has been spat upon, sworn at and briefly deported during his last three years in Turkey.

Mr. RASHID ADIBYO (24-Year-Old Nigerian): It's not easy. Because as you can see, most of us, we don't have job. So it is very difficult for us.

WATSON: Though he dreams of one day playing professional soccer in Europe, Adibyo has had to settle for leading the local Nigerian team to victory in last year's championship, something he hopes to repeat again this year.

(Soundbite of soccer game, whistle)

WATSON: His biggest challenge may come from the Ghanaians who scored goal after goal against Sudan, winning 9-to-nothing. Even the deafening call to prayer from a neighboring mosque could not dampen the crowd's enthusiasm.

(Soundbite of chanting, soccer game)

WATSON: Ghana's coach, a man who called himself Al Haji(ph), celebrated his team's victory.

AL HAJI (Ghana's Coach): Today, we want to prove to them that we are the champs of Africa and that we are the champs of Istanbul also. This cup--this competition, we promise everybody in Istanbul that we are going to take the cup.

WATSON: And so for a fleeting moment, the stress and humiliation of living clandestinely in a foreign city faded away. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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