In Yemen, a young Messi from Sana’a

In Yemen, a young Messi from Sana’a

In October 2015, Rafik is pictured playing football with one leg t Al Zubairi school in Sana’a. He lost his other leg while playing football in Sa’ada. A bomb fell close by injuring him and killing his best friend 8 years ago. School buildings at the Al Zubairi school in Sana’a being used to take shelter by 34 displaced families fleeing from Sa’ada.  This game is organised by UNICEF as part of its child friendly space programme.

© UNICEF/UN08242/Madhok – Although he lost his leg in an explosion 8 years ago in north-west Yemen, Rafik continues to play the game he loves – for now at the school in Sana’a, Yemen, where his family has taken shelter, but one day, he hopes, on a bigger stage.


By Rajat Madhok

For one boy living in the midst of Yemen’s conflict, soccer is more than just a game – it’s a way to overcome all the obstacles the world has thrown at him. 

SANA’A, Yemen/ HONG KONG, 25 January 2016 – Few people may be be aware that superstar Lionel Messi, born and raised in central Argentina, was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child. At age 13, he relocated to Spain to join FC Barcelona, who agreed to pay for his medical treatment. A star was born, and the rest, they say, is history.

Today, I want to introduce to you another football star. Rafik, age 15, is from Sana’a, the main city of Yemen. Eight years ago, Rafik lost his leg in an air strike while playing football in the north-western governate of Sa’ada. His closest friend was killed on the spot.

But Rafik’s story is not about death or the terrible memory of that day. It’s about the hope and the will that children like Rafik show the world in their everyday survival at the school where some 40 families have taken shelter after being forced by fighting to flee their homes. These children show how the human spirit does not give up.

Rafik’s spirit and determination to play ‘the beautiful game’ has brought together a band of brothers and sisters, united in their struggle to survive this conflict in a shelter ravaged by hunger and desperation. With his one solitary leg and crutches, Rafik has given this neighbourhood courage in a time of chaos.

Millions at risk

Children are among the most vulnerable groups affected by the conflict in Yemen. About 1.3 million are at risk of acute malnutrition, including more than 300,000 who risk being severely malnourished.

As of 12 January, UNICEF had verified nearly 1,900 cases of children killed (747) or maimed (1,108) since the conflict escalated in March 2015. Altogether, 7.3 million children need protection services, and rates of grave violations of children’s rights continue to increase dramatically.

Rafik is the neighbourhood superhero who has won many a game for his team, dribbling and attacking the ball with his friends at a school in Sana’a where those displaced by the conflict are seeking temporary shelter. He runs marathons, plays football and is ready to be the youngest football coach in Yemen – of a dream team that he is certain will rise from the ashes of this debris.

And naturally, he looks to Messi, his real-life hero, for inspiration.

© UNICEF/UN08234/Madhok
Rafik (in purple) playing football at Al Zubairi school in Sana’a, Yemen. Some 40 families displaced by conflict have taken shelter at the school.

A new life, for a moment

More than a 100 children are living at this temporary shelter. While the boys enjoy a game of football, the girls prefer to make handicrafts, draw pictures and perform puppet shows.

Their art reflects the reality of their times – whether it be paintings made from broken glass from a bomb explosion or a drawing that shows how conflict has upended their lives. About 1.8 million children have been out of school since last March.

While 14,500 schools have been reopened since November, 1,500 remain closed due to insecurity, leaving more than 383,000 children out of school, mainly in Sa’ada and Taiz Governorates. Nearly 2.5 million people have had to leave their homes and flee to safer locations because of the ongoing conflict.

There is little food, hardly any water and garbage is strewn on the streets of Sana’a. Medicines are in short supply, and hospitals are barely functioning. Yet despite these seemingly impossible odds, Rafik and his friends find a new life in a game of football.

Clearly our young champion has little concern for what others see as his disability. This determined teenager doesn’t believe that bombs and bullets can cripple his nation, nor dent his belief in humanity. It takes a lot of heart to bring such cheer to the desperate families who look to this boy, their homegrown Messi, the football icon for these young displaced children, to remind them of better times and pray for a better tomorrow.

For now, he runs off for a quick game before reality can sink in and the sounds of war force the children into running for cover once again.