Syrian lawyer Amrou Sabahi had hoped to spend his first World Cup at the heart of the action, working behind the scenes at the stadiums in Qatar, the first Arab country to hold the crowning event of soccer.
But when the tournament kicks off on Sunday, the 27-year-old will be watching from Spain, where he lives as a refugee, after his application to attend the Cup, was rejected.
“I’m an Arab, it’s the first World Cup in the Arab world — it was such a psychological shock,” said Sabahi, who hails from Aleppo and has lived as a refugee in Spain since 2014 after conflict broke out in his home country.
He and two other Syrian refugees, one Sudanese asylum-seeker in France, one Iranian refugee in Germany and one Palestinian refugee in Saudi Arabia told Reuters they had not been granted entry to Qatar after applying with their refugee travel documents.
They all spoke of their disappointment at the decisions, given the historic moment of it being held in the Middle East.
No reasons were given for any of their rejections, they said. Reuters could not verify if their refugee status had any bearing on their rejection.
Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Qatar, typically severely restrict entry for anyone trying to enter on a refugee travel document instead of a valid passport.
“Of course, it was a huge disappointment,” Sabahi, who works as a legal adviser in an immigration office in Madrid and is hoping to get his Spanish paperwork next month, said.
During the FIFA World Cup, anyone hoping to enter Qatar must apply for a “Hayya card”, which grants them access to both Qatar and the stadiums in lieu of a visa.
The six refugees who Reuters spoke to said they had their Hayya applications rejected in the last week before kick-off. They all said they applied months ago.
FIFA referred Reuters to Qatar’s government communication office, which in turn referred to the Supreme Committee (SC) for Delivery and Legacy, which was set up by the Qatari government to plan the World Cup.
An SC spokesperson told Reuters that over 1.25 million fans had received Hayya cards, “including tens of thousands of Syrians — many of whom have arrived to Qatar already”. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrians granted access were living in Syria, or elsewhere as refugees or citizens.
The spokesperson did not respond to questions on how many people had had their Hayya applications rejected, why they were rejected or whether refugee travel documents did not qualify as valid paperwork.
Sabahi had been hired over the summer by a Spanish-French company to travel to Qatar and work as a “host”, which could have involved guiding tour groups and other logistics.
He applied for a Hayya with his refugee travel document that he has used to travel elsewhere successfully, but lost out on his job opportunity because he did not have a Hayya.
Hani, a Syrian refugee in Germany and working as an investment analyst, said he had been looking forward to the World Cup as a chance to see his mother for the first time in five years as she lives in Damascus.
“I hadn’t booked flight tickets because my gut was telling me that something will go wrong and that I won’t be able to make it,” said Hani, who had received a US visa on his German travel document and travelled there recently. He requested his family name not be used.
A young Sudanese refugee in France, who applied and was rejected twice, said she had lost out on hundreds of dollars in match costs, flight tickets and accommodation.
“I don’t know what to do as I’m not going to get refunded,” the student, who has a part-time job, told Reuters.
“It’s something that would have meant a lot to me.”
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