LONDON: A remarkable campaign of support is building in Britain behind a 19-year-old footballer who is facing deportation to his native Sierra Leone where he fears his life would be at danger from a witchcraft cult.
Alhassan ‘Al’ Bangura has packed plenty into four years in his adopted country, establishing a promising career with Watford, a club near London who hope to return to the top-flight Premiership next season, and becoming a father this month.
But Bangura is living on borrowed time, facing being sent back to the west African country he fled when he was 15 because he feared his father’s links to a voodoo sect made him next in line for the men with the machetes.
His appeal to stay in Britain was rejected last week and he must now take his case to the Court of Appeal. Refugees from Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from a brutal civil war, are not automatically eligible for asylum in Britain so each case must be individually proved.
While Bangura anxiously awaits the next legal moves, his plight has gathered support far beyond a normal asylum case. There were extraordinary scenes on Saturday when Watford hosted Plymouth at the club’s Vicarage Road stadium.
Fans of opposition teams tend to boo their hosts, but Bangura was given a rapturous welcome from both sets of fans. When he was handed the microphone to thank the crowd, he was so choked with emotion he could hardly speak.
Thousands of people have signed a petition calling for him to be allowed to stay in Britain and Watford’s honorary life president, rock superstar Elton John, has written to the government urging a rethink.
“We have been extremely heartened by the support he’s had from the Watford fans but also from the wider footballing public,” Scott Field, the club’s head of media, told AFP. “We would be hugely disappointed as a club if Al loses the appeal, but our main concern is for him because he has worked so hard and he has done everything we expect from a young player.”
Bangura says his late father was chief of a secret society, the Soko, which practises witchcraft. His family were told that he was expected to succeed his father and would be forced to undergo an initiation ceremony involving mutilation.
Watford have stopped Bangura speaking to the media because of the sensitivity of the case, but he told The Guardian newspaper what he feared his fate would be if he was delivered back into the arms of the cult.
“They’re not good things that they are doing; they cut off bits of their body,” he said. If he were forced to return home, “it would be like someone is just taking my life away.” Bangura came to Britain after first making his way from Sierra Leone to neighbouring Guinea, helped by a mysterious Frenchman he knew only as “Pierre” whom Bangura thought wanted to help his budding football career.
When he arrived in London, two men tried to rape him, and he said he only realised then that he had fallen victim to a people trafficker. But he escaped their grasp and lived in a hostel while he applied for asylum.
His fortunes changed when he was spotted playing amateur football by a Watford talent scout. He made his first-team debut at the tender age of 17 and went on to play 16 games in the Premiership last season although he was unable to prevent Watford from being relegated.
Currently injured, the midfielder is working hard to regain his fitness and struggling with the demands of unexpected fatherhood after his Sierra Leone-born girlfriend whom he met in London gave birth this month to a son, Samal.
Meanwhile, his club, lawyers and politicians are working overtime to keep Bangura in Britain. Claire Ward, a lawmaker for the ruling Labour party who represents Watford, arranged a meeting this week between Bangura’s representatives and an immigration minister.
She believes he has a good chance of winning an appeal. “There are a number of factors in his favour such as the age he came into the country and the constructive way he has used his time here—he has been a role model and has taken part in youth projects and he has contributed to the British economy. “He has a strong case.”