Four years ago, Tareq Altorok arrived in Ireland as a refugee from Palestine. The then 15-year-old spoke no English and said he had no idea what the country was like.
Today, he will represent Ireland at the inaugural Unity Euro Cup in Switzerland. “I feel like this is a way to pay off all the help I got,” he said.
Eight teams will compete in the tournament, which has been organised by UEFA and the United Nations Refugee Agency. Stephen Kenny has travelled as an ambassador with the squad, 70pc of whom are made up of those with a refugee background.
Ireland were selected to take part due to the FAI’s football programmes with young adults in Ringsend, led by Development Officer Jonathan Tormey and Mick Byrne of Tusla.
Now aged 19, Altorok described his treacherous journey to Ireland. His local club Al Helal arranged a trip here in 2018, only for it to be cancelled due to the conflict with Israel.
Altorok still had the Irish visa however and decided to pursue the trip himself.
“It was a hard decision because I was 15 and had no idea what Ireland was like,” said Altorok, proudly wearing his Ireland shirt.
“My mother wasn't happy, but I had to risk it. We went through Egypt and there was conflict in Sinai between ISIS and the Egyptian Army, but we got through it.”
Once he arrived, Altorok threw himself into football and education. He quickly learned English and completed his Leaving Certificate, leading to a place in TU Dublin studying Civil Engineering.
On the pitch, the midfielder has lined out for Cherry Orchard, Cabinteely, and Rathcoole, and is on the look-out for a new club this summer.
“It’s a big honour,” Altorok said, reflecting on the international call-up. “Anything that says Ireland is like Palestine for me. All I’ve done in my life, I couldn’t have done without the Irish people.
“It can be hard to find a group of friends. I’m good at football, so I was able to become part of a group. It created a friendship between me and the guys.”
The Bohemians supporter also spoke about his family, whom he hadn't seen in four years until they relocated to Ireland recently.
“That was the biggest achievement in my life,” he added. “Seeing them safe here, my siblings in school and in work, I appreciate it so much.”
Altorok’s teammate Inza Bamba also endured a difficult journey to Ireland. Born in the Ivory Coast, Bamba lost both parents by the age of 14 before travelling to Libya to work as a welder.
In 2018 he boarded a boat for Italy, which was held in the Mediterranean for a week before they were allowed to dock in Malta.
“It was tough, but I did it,” said Bamba, who arrived in Ireland aged 16. Like Altorok, Bamba soon set about learning English, and completed his Leaving Certificate last week.
“I found the Irish people very kind and supportive,” Bamba continued.
“I couldn't have asked for more. Since I was little, I wanted to learn English. The first time I played football here I didn’t know anyone, but they treated me like one of the team. I have made a lot of friends and I’m proud of myself.”
“I’m looking forward to getting another selfie with him (Kenny),” Bamba laughs.
Ireland take on France, Austria, and Switzerland in Group A, with all games taking place today near UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon.