Omar sports high hopes
Walid Omar can't remember much of life in Afghanistan but football is one thing that sticks out.
The 22-year-old Mt Roskill man and his family came to New Zealand as refugees in 2000.
He is part of the Refugee Youth Action Network (RYAN) football team which took out the New Zealand Communities Football Cup this month.
RYAN was formed by Refugees as Survivors New Zealand (RASNZ), an agency that provides mental health treatment and rehabilitation for refugees from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Burma.
Omar started playing football for fun in Afghanistan as a child and joined Central United Football as soon as he arrived here aged 8.
The game has always been an escape from reality, he says.
"I've basically grown up with football. When I'm playing football I forget about everything else."
The strength of the RYAN team was a surprise because they had not played together before the tournament, Omar says.
Refugee players from Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton make up the team which had its first group training session just before the two-day tournament kicked off on November 30.
"We came up with this idea to make a strong team to play in the tournament. It worked. I knew we were going out there to do our best but I didn't think we were going to win it. It felt great."
Omar has hopes of being selected for the Auckland City FC team for 2014. He was in the club development academy in 2010 but had to pull out after a back injury.
It has been a hard road to recovery but Omar says winning the Communities Cup with RYAN was a step in the right direction.
"Staying away from football for nearly two years was so frustrating. I'm slowly getting back into it but it's taken a long time."
RASNZ community services manager Arif Saeid says football can be a taste of home for many refugees - it is often the main sport in their home countries.
Winning the cup is a huge accomplishment for RYAN, he says.
Immigration consultants Malcolm Pacific sponsored the team uniforms and match fees as part of the Refugees as Survivors programme in Auckland.
Operations manager David Cooper says sporting tournaments are a fantastic opportunity to bring cultures together.
"We're really proud to see refugees making such huge gains in the sporting community."
The New Zealand Communities Football Cup was introduced by the police in 2008 as a way to connect diverse communities and encourage social change.
Twelve teams representing 14 ethnic groups competed this year.
Go to police.govt.nz and search Communities Cup for more information.