When they see us playing, they see Kurdistan - Meeting Oxford’s Kurdish football team

"When they see us playing, they see Kurdistan” - Meeting Oxford’s Kurdish football team

By Tom Gould

Jodet, 40, has come a long way to be a football manager in Oxford. Born in Iraq, he arrived as an asylum seeker in 2002 and spent several years in Stoke-on-Trent before making the move south to work as a taxi driver. He was there in 2007 when BRUSK FC was founded. Meaning “lightning”, BRUSK serves as the football club for the Kurdish community in Oxford and Jodet has seen it through its evolution from the first informal kickabouts to the weekly routine of training and matches he organises today.

The most obvious function of the club is to provide a space for Kurds in Oxford to get together and socialise. Training takes place twice aweek with a match every Sunday, usually against other community football teams such as the Albanians, Romanians and Kurds in different cities. “When we go outside the city we go on the minibus and we get more time to talk to each other,” says Jodet.

 Creating a sense of community is vital as many Kurds first arrive in Oxford without any connections. Mohammed, the team captain, was one of them. He arrived alone in the UK from Iraq in 2008 at the age of 15. “In the beginning I really didn’t know anyone. It was hard and the first year was the hardest,” he says. “Since then it has become just like my home”.

Originally, the team had no formal sponsorship and relied entirely on donations and voluntary efforts from the community to keep the club alive and growing. Thanks to a grant from the National Lottery, the team can now afford to regularly rent space to practise and buy balls and other equipment. In recent years, the club has participated in the Diversity League,an Oxford-based football league for teams representing BAME communities and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In 2018, BRUSK FC came second, a source of great pride considering the club’s humble beginnings.

Shouting from the sidelines as BRUSK plays an international team made up of Ethiopians, Nigerians and others is Mustafa. “Everything started in front of my house,” he remembers. “Twenty or thirty people from different areas of Britain came to Oxford and we played football all together here”. One of the first members of the team was Eris who can still be found twelve years later at every match. “Even if he is not playing, he is always attending,” says Mustafa. “It’s about being in the community and supporting each other, it’s not that you have to play.” Eris still has not been formally granted refugee status. In fact, almost half the club are waiting for official refugee status which means they cannot obtain the right to work and they must rely on family and the community for support. The football club is one part of that support network.

BRUSK also plays an important role as a vehicle of Kurdish identity. “A lot of people in Oxford only know the Kurds because of the club,when they see the flag and us playing other teams. Before that maybe they didn’t know,” says Mohammed. “We don’t look like a country because Kurds are part of Syria, Iraq, Iran... but when they see us playing they see Kurdistan.They have been asking who we are and we have been explaining.”

Jodet’s plan for the club is to start training sessions for kids within the next year. Many members of the club who joined as teenagers are now married with children and can no longer afford to spend as many evenings on the pitch as they used to. The time is approaching to pass the club to the next generation. For Mustafa, this is about more than just preserving the club, it’s about preserving Kurdish identity. “At the end of the day, our kids are going to grow up here. My daughter - her name is Natalie - she goes to school here. She is more English than Kurdish and if she doesn’t mix with her people she will forget where she comes from and what her heritage is.”

In the changing room, the scene is what you would expect from a team before a game. Noisy conversation. Warm-up exercises.Friendly backslapping. For all the lofty ideals behind the club - representing Kurdistan and safeguarding Kurdish culture - it is clearly the warmth of the community that continues to draw people every week to the cold, floodlit pitches on the edge of Oxford. “Without the team we can’t see each other often,” says Jodet. “We only get time to see each other on Sundays and at training”. He grins. “Our team is our second home”.