Four years ago, Tareq Altorok arrived in Ireland as a refugee from Palestine. The 15-year-old spoke no English and said he had no idea what the country was like.
Today he will represent Ireland at the first Unity Euro Cup in Switzerland. “I feel like it’s a way to repay all the help I’ve received,” he said.
Eight teams will take part in the tournament organized by UEFA and the United Nations Refugee Agency. Stephen Kenny traveled as an ambassador with the team, 70% of which are made up of people from refugee backgrounds.
Ireland were selected to participate because of the FAI’s young adult football programs at Ringsend run by development manager Jonathan Tormey and Mick Byrne from Tusla.
Now 19, Altorok described his treacherous trip to Ireland. His local club Al Helal organized a trip here in 2018, only for it to be canceled due to the conflict with Israel.
Altorok still had the Irish visa and decided to continue the journey himself.
“It was a tough decision because I was 15 and had no idea what Ireland was like,” said Altorok, proudly wearing his Irish shirt.
“My mother was not happy, but I had to take the risk. We went through Egypt and there was a conflict in the Sinai between the Islamic State and the Egyptian army, but we went through it.
Once there, Altorok threw himself into football and education. He quickly learned English and earned his Leaving Certificate, leading to a place at TU Dublin to study Civil Engineering.
On the pitch, the midfielder has lined up for Cherry Orchard, Cabinteely and Rathcoole, and is looking for a new club this summer.
“It’s a great honour,” Altorok said, referring to the international call-up. “Everything that says Ireland is like Palestine to me. Everything I’ve done in my life, I couldn’t have done without the Irish people.
“It can be difficult to find a group of friends. I’m good at football, so I was able to be part of a group. It created a friendship between me and the guys.
The Bohemians supporter also opened up about his family, who he hadn’t seen for four years until they moved to Ireland recently.
“It was the greatest achievement of my life,” he added. “To see them safe here, my brothers and sisters at school and at work, I appreciate it so much.”
Altorok’s teammate Inza Bamba also endured a difficult trip to Ireland. Born in Ivory Coast, Bamba lost both parents at the age of 14 before moving to Libya to work as a welder.
In 2018 he boarded a boat for Italy, which was held up in the Mediterranean for a week before being allowed to dock in Malta.
“It was difficult, but I succeeded,” said Bamba, who came to Ireland aged 16. Like Altorok, Bamba quickly set about learning English and completed his Leaving Certificate last week.
“I found the Irish very kind and supportive,” Bamba continued.
“I couldn’t have asked for better. From a very young age, I wanted to learn English. The first time I played football here I didn’t know anyone, but they treated me like a member of the team. I made a lot of friends and I’m proud of myself.
“I can’t wait to have another selfie with him (Kenny),” laughs Bamba.
Ireland face France, Austria and Switzerland in Group A, with all matches today taking place near UEFA headquarters in Nyon.