Refugee to referee: Syrian eyes promotion to Bundesliga

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

BERLIN (AP) Almost a year into his new life in Germany, Syrian refugee Ammar Sahar is well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming a Bundesliga referee.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Sahar, who already referees matches in the Berlin league in the sixth tier of German soccer, has his hopes pinned on officiating at the highest level.

“I have a good chance,” the 27-year-old told The Associated Press.

Sahar has been refereeing since he was 17 years old, when he took charge of an under-14s league game in his home city of Hama, Syria’s fourth largest after Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.

“After two years I went to the second and third divisions in Syria. From 2008 to 2010 I was in the first division in Syria,” said Sahar, who also officiated youth games in neighboring Lebanon.

Syria’s devastating civil war forced him to flee with his wife Loubana via Lebanon in October 2015. Sahar had a brother living in Germany so it was the logical choice. The couple had to get there first, however, undertaking the perilous journey from Turkey and across the Aegean Sea toward Greece, the first frontier for most migrants seeking to reach the EU.

Loubana was seventh months pregnant at the time. But they paid smugglers a premium so that they could travel on a safer boat. Sahar believes there were around 30 fellow passengers when normally some 45 are crammed on board for a cheaper price. There was still drama on the crossing, however.

“We were halfway when the motor gave up,” Sahar said. “But other people on the boat helped me to get it going again.”

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ahead of USA vs. Mexico ]

Like many other refugees, they made their way by bus to Macedonia and then Serbia, before continuing by train through Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, from where a bus took them to Passau on the German border, then another to Munich.

“In Munich the police gave us tickets for a (refugee) center but I said, `No, no, we’re not going to Munich, we’re going to Berlin!'” Sahar said.

He thought the German football federation’s headquarters must be in Berlin, the capital.

“But it’s in Frankfurt. I thought at the time it was in Berlin so I said, `We go to Berlin, we want to go to Berlin.’ And the police were so nice they gave me two tickets to go to Berlin.”

Before that, a visa stamp on Sahar’s passport from Oman had raised a few eyebrows among German police before he explained he had travelled to the Arabian sultanate to referee an under-14 tournament.

“I showed them a photo. `I’m a referee,'” he said.

Soccer is the national sport in Germany so that may have eased his entry into the country.

The Sahars were just one couple among 890,000 migrants to arrive in the country last year. The latest government figures suggest some 213,000 applied for asylum in the first nine months of this year.

Sahar got in touch with the Berlin football federation and was given three games to referee as a test in the Landesliga Berlin, a level below the Berlin-Liga.

“After this match in the Landesliga, the Berliner Fussball Verband (Berlin football federation) called me to go to a referee camp. They told me, `Now you are a referee in the Berlin-Liga.’ I was very happy,” Sahar said.

Matches are shared between three officials, each doing two games as an assistant before one as a referee.

Sahar refereed his fifth Berlin-Liga match on Sunday, a 5-0 victory for BFC Preussen at DJK SW Neukoelln. He had a busy game, handing out five yellow cards and one red that led to a penalty.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Playoffs power rankings — conference finals edition ]

“He had a great game. He did a super job,” said Neukoelln player Marco Fink, who acknowledged the red card had been justified.

Local league photographer Christoph Lehner had seen Sahar in action several times before and said his biggest challenge was communicating with the players.

“Of course the language plays a huge role in communication,” Lehner said.

Sahar, who speaks basic English and German, admits that communication is an issue but says it’s getting easier all the time.

“Sometimes I have a problem understanding what a player is saying to me, but anything I don’t understand, I save in my mind,” he said. “The assistants also help me a lot.”

Learning German is key as Sahar aims to integrate as quickly as possible in order to reach his goal.

“I must work very hard to be a good referee in Germany,” he said. “Now I work step-by-step to arrive in the Bundesliga.”

Sahar works as a swimming instructor in a local school in Berlin, while juggling German language lessons, referee training and parental duties with Loubana for their son Nidal, born in Berlin not long after the couple’s arrival in the German capital on Dec. 3, 2015.

They recently moved to an eastern district of Berlin. The change just adds to the daily challenges. Besides training, parenting, working and learning German – they still have to get a new kitchen installed – Sahar keeps looking on the bright side.

“German is hard, but it’s a nice language,” he said.

That positive outlook is fueling his push for promotion to referee at the top level.

“I hope to go to Bundesliga 1 and 2 in the future. I work every day to get to the next level, to get to the Bundesliga. The Bundesliga is one of the best leagues in the world,” Sahar said.

And it doesn’t need to end there for the ambitious match official whose favorite referee is Howard Webb of England.

“In the next five or six years, maybe I’ll have a German I.D. and I could be an international referee from Germany, maybe. This is my dream,” he said.