Tokyo, Japan – When Jamal, a 25-year-old Syrian, was granted refugee status in Japan, one of the first things he did was go back to playing football. “Soccer is my dream, you know, to be professional,” says the Syrian refugee, who joined two Tokyo football teams.
While at university in Damascus, Jamal played in the 1st division of the Syrian football league, but never felt he could progress. Even before the war, the Bashar al-Assad government was “controlling everything, even the national team”, he says.
“If I was still in Syria, I wouldn’t have the choice to become professional,” says Jamal, who only wants to reveal part of his name. “But here [in Japan] they appreciate talent, any good thing you do.”
Nearly recovered from a pulled hamstring, he is due soon to audition for a spot in the Japan Football League (J-League).
He has also found other opportunities in Japan. Sitting earlier this year in a cafeteria in Tokyo’s Meiji University, where he’s a scholarship student, Jamal talks about his other pursuits – becoming fluent in Japanese and learning Spanish among them. But none of this was possible until 2015, when Jamal, his mother and teenage sister were granted refugee status, and with it some stability.
“Everyone was not expecting us to get it … even our lawyer,” Jamal says. “But we were lucky.”
Despite being one of the most generous government donors to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – Japan was ranked the fourth biggest contributor in 2016 after the US, the EU and Germany – it has long been closed to immigration and reluctant to accept refugees.
Geographically isolated and culturally homogenous, Japan isn’t an obvious refuge for Syrians fleeing the war. Between 2011 and 2016, 69 Syrians sought asylum in Japan – just seven have got it. Though far fewer asylum seekers come to Japan than Germany, for instance, they are diverse, victims of not just the well-known conflicts in Syria or Iraq, but lesser-known violence and persecution…