The most beautiful feeling': how cricket helped former refugee find acceptance

As a boy playing in the streets of Pakistan, and later as a refugee in Sri Lanka, cricket has been a central part of Ehtisham Ahmed’s life. Now, the sport he loves is helping him pave a future.

Where Ahmed grew up in Pakistan, cricket grounds were rare, and clubs expensive and inaccessible.

”We put wickets on the street and played with a cheap bat and a soft ball. I played with the street boys, neighbours and friends.”

He created a small team and started playing against other teams in an informal division.

“Cricket is a celebration for us; the World Cup is a festival.”

His family didn’t have a television, but when there was a big match, a neighbour would put their television outside on the street, so everyone could watch, he said.

Ahmed’s family are Ahmadiyya Muslims; a minority religious sect that is not officially recognised in Pakistan.

Their faith meant the family experienced discrimination and persecution. At school, teachers ignored Ahmed, and as he grew older, he was ostracised by his peers. He became depressed and withdrawn, he said.

When he was 17, Ahmed’s mum urged him to leave her and his older siblings and join his older sister in Sri Lanka, in the hope they could be resettled as a refugee elsewhere in the world.

“We didn’t have enough money for the whole family, so I went alone. It was difficult, my dad died when I was 4, and I was very close with my mum. But she sent me for a better future.”

During the five years Ahmed waited for resettlement in Sri Lanka, he turned to cricket. As he had back home, he organised an informal network of teams, which would go on to play the big clubs – despite some opposition.

“We experienced racism, people came into the grounds, told us not to play, to get out.

When the option to resettle in New Zealand arose, Ahmed didn’t know much about the country – except for one aspect, of course.

“We knew about the New Zealand cricket team,” he said.

Ahmed and his sister arrived in Nelson last year, part of a group of 250 or so Ahmadiyya Muslims. His early days here were disorienting. “It was like a dream,” he said. “It didn’t seem real.”

The sport he loved also felt out of reach, he said. “I was about to leave cricket. I thought, I don’t have any community in Nelson, no one will help me here.”

However, when Ahmed mentioned his love of the sport to Multicultural Nelson Tasman, they connected him with the Nelson Cricket Association.

Suddenly, the new Kiwi had a ready-made community.

“[The NCA] ... made me feel that I’m a member of this city and this country. The way they treat me on and off the field, it’s unexpected. This is the most beautiful feeling.”

On the field Ahmed is an all-rounder, and he is developing a similar role off the pitch. Despite his short time in Nelson, Ahmed has found work with the Red Cross, and is a youth leader in his own community. He’s also rallied others from the Sri Lankan and Pakistani community to join local cricket teams, and next month, he’ll take part in the first Multicultural Cricket Day, sparked by the success of this year’s Multicultural Football Tournament.

“We’re lucky,” Ahmed said. “I have a job, I play cricket, all my desires have come true.”

The first Multicultural Cricket Day on March 12 welcomes cricketers of all backgrounds and levels. Teams can register now for the 6-a-side, 12-over games, which will be played at Victory Square grounds. Email: Dustin@nelsoncricket.org.nz