Buenos Aires, Argentina
Three years ago, Bayan Mahmud sneaked onto a ship in the bustling port of Cape Coast in southern Ghana. The then 16-year-old stowaway had no clue where it was headed, but he was scared and just wanted to get as far away as possible.
He certainly got his wish – disembarking across the Atlantic Ocean in Argentina after a three week journey. But he also ended up with a whole lot of new goals – literally – and a massive change in fortune, thanks to his skill at football in a land where the game is almost a religion.
Bayan had made his way to Cape Coast after fleeing a resurgence of ethnic conflict in northern Ghana between the Mamprusis and the Kusasis tribes. When the violence erupted in 2010, he and his brother Muntala were staying in an orphanage because their parents had been killed in an earlier wave of violence.
They ran away, but got separated during the journey. Bayan's path took him to the ocean-going ship – and uncertainty. He only survived the long trans-Atlantic trip thanks to a kindly crew member, who spotted the boy and decided to give him food and water without alerting his shipmates.
When the boat reached its first port of call in Argentina, the teenager faced many new challenges. The first two nights he slept in the streets and then another big-hearted person put him on a bus for the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.
Once again fortune favoured the boy: in the big city, he met a Senegalese man who spoke English and directed him to Argentina's National Commission for Refugees (CONARE). As an unaccompanied minor, he became a ward of the authorities and was granted refugee status as well as help and protection.
But things really started going his way when he was spotted by a scout from Boca Juniors – one of the country's top soccer clubs – while playing football in a Buenos Aires park with friends. Bayan was signed and now plays for the club's youth teams as he continues to perfect his game. He has tremendous talent and Boca predict great things for the young Ghanaian.
Meanwhile, Boca have provided board and lodging in a hostel the club runs for its young players from around the country, and the club is making sure he gets an education. Best of all, Boca Juniors helped him get back in touch with his brother, Muntala, through social media. He longs to be reunited and UNHCR is helping. "He is the only family I have, I will be so happy if he is here close to me," he says.
Meantime, Bayan practises football every day and dreams of playing as a midfielder in Boca's first team at their 40,000-capacity La Bombonera stadium. "I also want to be the first black football player in the Argentine national team," he says.
His story of triumph over adversity has won Bayan many friends in Argentina, where he is one of about 5,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, mostly from Latin America. "Bayan is a strong, cheerful, loveable young boy full of hope. For a club like Boca, a club founded by immigrants, it is enormously satisfying to have Bayan with us," says Daniel Angelici, the president of Boca Juniors.
Bayan's story is inspirational on many levels. Not only has he overcome adversity and persecution, but he has also shown how integration can work. And his story underlines the importance of sport and education for all children, including the forcibly displaced. UNHCR has long promoted the importance of both.
For young vulnerable refugees, sport can help counteract psycho-social problems as well as stress and loneliness. It also contributes to physical fitness, mental well-being and social integration by providing a safe environment in which a child can develop physically, emotionally and mentally.
While dreaming of a bright future as a professional football player, Bayan also remembers his parents and others who did not make it. "I always pray for them, I know they would be very proud of me," he says. And as this article went to press, he heard the wonderful news that his brother has been given the go-ahead to join him.
By Virginia Pico in Buenos Aires, Argentina