Silver linings: Bahraini international's life in Melbourne as a refugee

Following another completed training session, Hakeem Alaraibi makes his way home from Lakeside Stadium. Unlike twelve months ago, Hakeem no longer has to fear for his life as he makes the trek back through the city.

“In Bahrain I was in fear of the police attacking my house,” Hakeem says.

“Who knows what they could do. Even when I am training or playing I fear that I might get attacked and get taken away to the police station.”

No person should ever have to go through that pain, but Hakeem was forced to live in this constant fear after being detained at the age of 16. Police accused him of lighting tyres on fire, but there was another reason they arrested him.

“I was taken to the investigative centre at Al Khamees police station and tortured,” he recalls. “I was then detained for five months.”

His half-brother, Emad, is a political activist and his profile in the country is what Hakeem believes contributed to his arrest.

“The reason I think this is because the authorities came to our home looking for Emad to arrest him on the same night that I had returned from playing soccer in Kuwait,” he said.

During the time he was detained at the police station his family was not initially allowed to visit him, before being granted the opportunity to see him once a week. It was lonely.

“I was afraid to sleep feeling that the police may lead me to an unknown area and beat me,” Hakeem said. “They would beat me to the point where I would faint and then they throw water on me to wake me up so they could continue beating me.”

“On one occasion I was badly beaten by the police officers. I obtained some injuries, particularly to my ear. I was transferred to hospital for treatment.

“The hospital prescribed painkillers and other medication but the police ordered that it not be provided to me.”

After five months, Hakeem was released due to pressure from demonstrators and rallies in February of 2011. Following his release, he went straight back in to football. His love for the game began at a young age.

“I started football when I was 11 at Al Shabab. I was training and playing with them and when I became 16 I got called up to the national team for the U17’s,” Hakeem says.

At the age of just 18 he was appointed captain of the senior side at his club, and following a number of impressive performances he was called up to the senior national team.

Hakeem played in almost every qualifier for the 2015 Asian Cup, which is being held in Australia, but his dreams of representing Bahrain at the tournament are now practically impossible after being forced to flee the country to protect his life.

“On my 19th birthday, after a soccer training session, I was with one of my friends when I was arrested at a police check point,” he says.

At this point, Hakeem’s worst fears are realised. He is led to an investigation room and suddenly he has flashbacks from when he was detained three years ago. The punches, the kicks, the splashing of water - it was going to happen all over again.

“My hands were then tied and my eyes covered,” he says. “They sprinkled very cold water on me.

“They hit me, tortured me and threatened me with sexual assault. They swore at me and degraded the Shia sect. The hitting was an ongoing procedure on my feet and legs.

“After my feet became swollen, I was obliged to move them and raise them so the blood would flow and they could hit me again. There were four people sitting over my body who were hitting me and swearing at me and they refused to listen to what I had to say.

“Every now and then I would become unconscious.”

This time the police’s reasoning for detaining him was because he attacked Al Khamees police station. On the date the police accused him of this crime, Hakeem was actually playing football – on live television.

“Every time I said the soccer match was live on TV and they could verify this, they hit me harder and harder,” Hakeem says.

“I said ‘I am a football player, I am not involved in anything.’ They said that they would destroy my future.”

Hakeem was charged and sent to prison for three months. There, the beatings continued.

“I was put in Dry Dock prison which was completely full with political detainees who belonged to the Shia sect,” he says. “During that time we weren’t able to sleep at night.

“The special riot police used to come to the prison at any time and start beating the political detainees.”

The Bahraini football federation provided official evidence showing he was playing the night of the time of the alleged attack on the police station. The judge released him on bail of 100 Bahraini Dinar (roughly $300AUD).

“But the charge was never withdrawn because according to them, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove my innocence beyond reasonable doubt,” Hakeem says.

At this point, Hakeem wonders when will it all end. The lies, the torture, the fear. But once again, he does not let anything get between him and his love for the beautiful game.

“Despite the proceedings against me, I went to external soccer camps in Turkey and other countries in mid 2013 to prepare for the Olympic Gulf Tournament which took place in Bahrain,” Hakeem says.

Bahrain achieved first place after beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final.

“Two days later, we were called by the Royal Palace and we were decorated by the King who gave an order that the activity of the team members would be to exclusively play soccer and that we should be rewarded by work with the National Guard,” he says.

“They took each player’s requests and promised that these were going to be fulfilled. However, the promised rewards never came.”

Hakeem worked hard to get back in to shape and was rewarded with a call-up back to the senior national team to play in the West Asia Cup in Qatar. However, little did he know that he would not be returning home at the completion of the tournament.

“Because I had been allowed to join the national team, I assumed that the charges against me had been withdrawn, especially because the final court hearing on 5 January 2014 would take place while I would be in Qatar,” Hakeem says.

“But when I was in Qatar, I wasn’t allowed to leave the hotel where we were staying.

“The team administration dropped me off at the airport in Doha on 4 January to fly back to Bahrain for the hearing. The Bahraini football federation had provided me with a return ticket for Bahrain.

“But I was too scared to return to Bahrain so instead of flying back, I left the airport and went to stay with a friend who was living in Qatar.

“When I found out about the sentence – I had been convicted to 10 years imprisonment in absentia – this made me decide to flee to Iran.”

From Bahrain, to Qatar, to Iran, Hakeem then went to Iraq, before returning back to Iran and then spending two months in Malaysia.

“I could only get visas for specific amounts of time which is why I had to keep going in and out of countries,” he says.

“I tried to play in soccer teams in Malaysia but I couldn’t be open about my membership of the Shia sect there. The Malaysian authorities and people are against Shia too.

“I also was worried the Malaysian government might send me back to Bahrain.”

Hakeem had nowhere to go. He had hardly a cent left after spending all his money to eventually get to Malaysia. But, as a lot of things do in this world, a silver lining appeared and an old friend from high school offered him the opportunity to live with him – in Australia. His brother was not so lucky.

“He was sentenced to 10 years for the same case as me,” he says. “My family told me that authorities came to my house three weeks after the sentence was handed down against me.

“I think the main reason I was targeted is because I am a well-known Shia football player. I am not the only Shia sports-person that has been arrested in Bahrain.”

Hakeem has applied for a protection visa here in Australia. Testament to his passion for the game, one of his first goals when arriving in Australia was to keep up his fitness, and thankfully for him, National Premier Leagues Victoria champions South Melbourne offered him the opportunity to train with the club.

At just 20 years of age, most people who see this young man make his way to and from football training cannot even begin to imagine what he has been through so far in his short life.

Not even Hakeem himself can fully grasp what he has had to deal with, especially in the past 18 months. But for now, and as always, there is only one thing that is on his mind.

“I just want to play football.”