Ali Abbas has a message for other migrants – don’t be afraid.
“Take your opportunity, try to communicate with people and do whatever it takes,” he says.
“Don’t stay at home and be scared to come and be a part of the community.”
The 29-year-old footballer has taken a break from training with Sydney FC – the club he has called home since 2012 – to talk about his extraordinary journey from war-torn Iraq to Australia, where he has played professionally for more than five years.
Abbas first came to the country in 2007 as a member of the Iraqi under-23 side to play against the Olyroos. Despite a stunning win at the Asia Cup earlier in the year, the Iraqi team had only an outside chance of winning the match, which would qualify them for the Beijing Olympics.
As he relaxes in the team’s changing room Abbas remembers driving into Sydney and to the beachside hotel where the team was to stay.
“It was very nice, very hot and nice weather,” he says. “I saw the beach and the view. It was beautiful.
“I haven’t seen that before and I was imagining if I lived here, how nice it would be.”
The peace and calm was in stark contrast to the home Abbas had left behind, which had been rocked by instability under the 24-year dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, followed by the American invasion of 2003.
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In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Abbas described the fear he had experienced daily in Baghdad.
“You’re going to go out, maybe you’re not going to go back home. Maybe you’re going to die,” he said.
“Maybe you are going to have your arms lost, or legs. I’ve got a friend of mine, he’s a brother, he used to play soccer, and he lost both his legs.”
“Take your opportunity, try to communicate with people and do whatever it takes.”
Before he was due to return to Iraq, Abbas and two other teammates secretly left their hotel to seek asylum in Australia. The story made headlines around the world.
Abbas was granted asylum in 2008 but returned to Iraq later that year. It would be more than a year later that he returned to Australia to join the Marconi Stallions, and, later, the Newcastle Jets. On Australia Day in 2012, he became an Australian citizen.
“The first six months, to be honest, I haven’t met anybody because I haven’t speak any English so it’s a little bit hard for me to communicate,” he says.
But he was determined to make the most of the chance he’d been given.
“They have many opportunities here and I was grateful to have that opportunity and take it in both my hands.”
He has been playing with the Sydney FC for almost four years and is a favourite with fans.
“I’m really happy to represent that club,” he says. “That club means a lot to me.”
Abbas still plays for the Iraqi national team – he was recalled in 2014 – and holds a strong connection to his home. He says players are treated differently in the football-mad country than in Australia.
“In Iraq, when you walk on the street, you can’t, because they’re going to stop you on the street to take a photo with you,” he says. “It is completely different here. They know you but they don’t want to come up to you and ask for autograph or photo.”
Despite being plagued by a knee injury that has taken him off the field for the better part of a year, Abbas seems content. And he is keen for other migrants to Australia to enjoy similar success.
“Whatever you love to do – play soccer, play NFL, anything in your life – just come and try it with the people. Don’t stay at home and do nothing.”
This story was produced as part of the SBS series, First Day, airing on SBS World News throughout January.