For many youth, Kampala Junior Team (KJT) is one of the standards of success in local football. Making it in the team guarantees numerous opportunities.
For a refugee like Hussein Dahir Hussein, aka Kikomando, it takes a lot more, from the training to hope that should be that of the pilgrims, to make it.
Having joined the team from Nakivubo Blue Primary School after KJT scouts spotted him destroy agemates in 2011 during an inter-school tournament against Old Kampala, Hussein has risen to the U-18 side while playing a starring role in the futsal league, where he has played for Equator and now Kisenyi.
But for young Somali refugees like him, the gulf between their dreams and their day-to-day realities are oceans apart.
With the Futsal Super League season, normally a three-month affair, suspended twice after the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, Abdulkadir Ibrahim Ali “Fabry” has no idea of what the future holds.
The 19-year-old is actually worried that he might not even get a chance to begin his odyssey toward the big dream of ever representing his national football team.
Abdulkadir’s Kisenyi teammate, Abdihamid Dahir Rijaal, is one of the handful of players who have missed action for the past two seasons. He also plays in the Kampala league with Crown FC.
They train on their own. But the experiment is too stressful, they agree.
A tech-savvy person, Abdulkadir holds a certificate in Information Technology.
The youngest of 10 brothers, who says both his parents were sports lovers that played in the elite national league back in Somalia, Abdulkadir is just happy he gets paid something to play futsal – albeit a modest transport refund.
To him, irregular pay as well as stop-and-go league action, are all part of chasing a childhood goal. A single day spent playing in the futsal league, he says, is worth more than a month of wages for the rest of his peers that don’t play.
In the wake of a pandemic that reshaped sports across the world, many futsal players have had to face fresh challenges.
The earning potential for low-end prospects like Abdulkadir plummeted after the 2020 season was cut short.
But the Somali refugees don’t dare complain. With few teams in place to absorb them and no one to defend their rights, they risk rejection if they speak out about substandard pay, facilities, or even rights.
“In futsal, it is about how you manage to transition to another step,” Sulaiman Mutyaba, top scorer in 2018 with Dream, said. “I will say, the players are not being exploited but in that league you are an indentured apprentice.”
Only six players of Somali descent are in the top flight futsal league; Rijaal, Hussein, Abdala Salim, Abubaker Amin, Abdulkadir and Jamac Muqtaar.
Compounding players’ plight is the fact that there’s only one path to the top leagues in the country. To reach the Uganda Premier League or maybe the Big League, players must often toil for years. Several local players have broken through but for the Somali refugees, many get to the point where they decide their pursuit of a storybook ending is no longer financially feasible.
For Rijaal, 19, who came to Uganda in 2013 and plays for Crown after graduating from Soccer Stars Academy, that day isn’t likely to arrive anytime soon.
Rijaal, who completed Senior Four in 2020, is a solid defender with disciplined approach and unusual versatility – he can play even in midfield to ease concerns about his pint-size. When he started with the now defunct Equator, he earned admiration from top teams but it was Kisenyi for him because of team captain Abdifatah Ahmed Fiyore.
“Ugandan players are very physical but I manage to handle them in futsal and football as well,” Rijaal said. “So why can’t I dream of big things? I want to represent my national team and play in the big leagues,” he says.
The daily routine for the trio involves the mandatory five Islamic prayers and then training. Hussein, who won the Airtel Rising Stars tournament with KJT in 2018, is a highly touted youngster. His coach Sulaiman Sekanyo describes him with great acclaim.
“He does not give up. Despite his small body, he is aggressive. I have no doubt he will make it in football,” Sekanyo says.
But that is just if. Rijaal’s mother wants him to be a politician who can become the president of Somalia. Despite his thriving career at Crown, not many teams have shown interest in him.
While some of the futsal players have turned pro such as Islam Semakula, who plays for LLPP Jeenyo in Mogadishu, and Sadiq Sekyembe, now a league winner with Express, Rijaal is biding his time.
“That shows me that if you work hard, good things come your way. Our [Somalia] league has teams that pay well and I have to kick into another gear,” he says.
Football in Somalia is safer and re-energised after more than two decades of unrest. By 2015, there were at least 20 foreign players in the Somali league.
Why not Uganda?
Playing for a league team in Uganda should not be a hard thing if one possesses a recognised refugee identity card. But no single refugee has excelled through the ranks of Ugandan football so far.
Soccer Without Borders is a non-governmental organisation founded in 2006 to help refugees and migrants around the world to use football as a means of education and development for young people. In Uganda, the organisation has been active since 2008.
Catherine Kabanyana, senior programme coordinator at the NGO, said last year that it requires them to establish stronger relationships with Fufa.
“We have been working with refugees for a long time but we have not actively involved Fufa,” she said.
In May 2019, Onduparaka became the first club to sign a contract aimed at promoting talent among refugees but none has come through the ranks yet.
Hamza Jjunju, chairman of the futsal association, is confident the league will get stronger and offer better employment terms. “We are on our way to professionalism. Although it takes time, we’ve laid a strong foundation,” he said.
Despite being an amateur league, the Somali trio agrees that at least they found a platform in futsal. But with few teams in the league, options are bleak as numerous players give up their dream.
“Many young people realise that they cannot make it in sports. So, in order to provide for their families, they sadly have to quit,” Abdulkadir confesses.
Abdulkadir struggled with a fractured leg in 2019 and no one tried to ease his concerns. “I always felt guilty. My mother didn’t say a word but she was silently telling me to quit,” he says.
Other predicaments are even more dire. The Somali players are racially abused but since they have learned Luganda, they fight back. “This is not common among players. It mostly happens with fans,” Hussein says.
Ali Omarios, former Somali Community Football Association chairman in Uganda, is the founder of Kisenyi Futsal Club.
The businessman grew up in Kisenyi where many Somali refugees live. His passion for sport made him start the futsal club in 2019 to deal with social issues, as well as facilitate refugees’ integration into the local society and promote their talent.
“Being a refugee is stressful enough but through talent one can go on to make a living,” Omarios says.
Somali refugees in futsal
Abdihamid Dahir Ahmed
Hussein Dahir Hussein
Hussein Abdala Salim
Haji Abubaker Amin
Ibrahim Ali Abdulkadir
Jamac Muqtaar Jamac
Note: All play for Kisenyi