'I was a boy trying to make friends but I got bullied'

New to the Parish: Azeez Yusuff was just 10 when left Nigeria to join his parents in Ireland

'I’m Nigerian and I’m proud to be Nigerian, but I’m Irish in my blood' says Azeez Yusuff who moved to Ireland in 2006. Video: Bryan O'Brien


Azeez Yusuff discovered he was a good soccer player quite soon after he arrived in Ireland. It was not his technical ability that made him stand out but the speed at which he weaved the ball up and down the pitch. Unfortunately, his new-found talent did not help the primary school student make friends.

His classmates were already hesitant about opening up to the new arrival from Nigeria. The fact that he could race down the pitch faster than the star soccer player did him no favours.

“I arrived at the school in the winter and they used to throw tissues in my tea. I told the teacher but she just said they were only messing. I was just this little boy trying to make friends but I did get bullied. I was really fast at football and I guess one guy got pissed off because I was getting the ball but he was the best in the school.”

Azeez was just 10 years old when he stepped on board an aircraft for the first time in his life and flew to Ireland to join his parents. He still remembers the fear of sitting in that large mechanical object, praying it would not fall out of the sky.

At Dublin Airport he was greeted by his mother whom he had not seen in six years and his father, who had been gone even longer. “I remember it was freezing when I arrived in Ireland, it was February and so cold. But it was one of the best days of my life; I hadn’t seen my parents in a long time.”

He had moved in with his grandmother in the city of Ibadan, north of Lagos, after his parents moved to Ireland in search of work. “It was really difficult leaving her behind but we still talk. The way I think about it is for you to move on in life you have to make some sacrifices. I haven’t gone back home to see her since I came here but I would love to see her again.”

After he arrived in Dublin, his parents enrolled him in sixth class at the local primary school in Tallaght. However, when his older brother arrived soon after and joined the same class, their mother, who was worried the brothers would stick together and not open up to new friendships, requested that Azeez be moved into fifth class. By the time he started secondary school, he was still struggling to make friends.

“I really stood out in class, that was scary. Obviously the language barrier was really difficult in terms of not understanding people. In Nigeria, English is the first language but it’s not what you speak at home. I spoke Yoruba, that’s my language. I was going to school and just coming straight back home and it got really boring. My dad suggested I join a club to make friends and improve how I spoke.”

He was 13 when he started playing with the local soccer club. “They were really welcoming and even though my language still wasn’t the best, they helped.”

He continued playing soccer through his teen years and joined Shamrock Rovers FC. However, he was forced to take a break after he sustained an injury and underwent surgery on his knee in his late teens. It was his friend Abdul, whom he had met through the local club, who suggested that he consider coaching the newly formed Muslim women’s soccer team in Dublin.

Diverse City FC had been established by a group of young Dubliners after Fifa decided to lift the ban on headscarves during matches. Abdul also introduced him to the Sports Against Racism Ireland (Sari) organisation which uses sport as a medium to promote social inclusion and cultural integration.

Despite the demands of college work, he is still an active member and volunteer with Sari and continues to train the young women who play with Diverse City.

“I absolutely love coaching Diverse City. What I’ve found is a lot of women don’t really get involved in sport but with Diverse City it’s totally different. It doesn’t matter if you’re really good at football. Anyone can come along and we help them develop. Soccer is a physical activity that is key for everybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl.”

Azeez (21) is now studying computer science at the National College of Ireland, volunteers with Sari and acts as a coach and mentor for young teenage players. Asked why soccer continues to play such an important role in his life, he says it’s all down to a feeling of happiness.

“I’ve discovered that sport releases all the stress from my body. When I play I literally drop everything. I don’t think of college work, family problems, nothing. I just focus on playing and after I finish I feel so happy on the pitch.”

Azeez has passed this love of sport on to his younger siblings who were born in Ireland after he moved from Nigeria. His younger brother plays soccer for Knocklyon Football Club in Dublin and his two younger sisters play Gaelic football and camogie. He also enjoys playing Gaelic football.

“I like the fitness aspect of it,” he says. “It’s much more physical than soccer and I think the training is more challenging.”

The struggles in his early years in Ireland have taught the soccer enthusiast the importance of getting involved as a means of making new friends.

“For new people who are coming into this country, my advice is definitely to join societies or clubs,” Azeez suggests. “It doesn’t have to be sport, but clubs really boost you. For me it has opened up a lot of doors and networks. If I didn’t join a club I don’t think the direction I’m going in would have happened.

“I’m Nigerian and I’m proud to be Nigerian, but I’m Irish in my blood,” he adds. “I’ve been here longer than the time I spent in my own country. Ireland is most definitely my home.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish