Abandoned and alone: Photographer Jason Andrew reveals the lives of scammed African football players in Istanbul

Abandoned and alone: Photographer Jason Andrew reveals the lives of scammed African football players in Istanbul

Photographer Jason Andrew grew up in California, USA, and taught at an elementary school for four years before studying photography. He has since been published in Time, the Financial Times, the New Yorker, and the British Journal of Photography, among others.

In 2010, Andrew traveled to Istanbul in Turkey where he met aspiring footballers from Nigeria, players who would become the subject of his photography series Black Diamonds.

Photographs from the project revealed the reality of life for African players who had traveled to Turkey believing they would attend trials with famous teams like Galatasaray, Besiktas, or Fenerbahce. The truth was very different.

In part one of a two-part interview with Jason, the photographer explains how he met the footballers from Nigeria in Istanbul, what he learned about their journey from West Africa to Turkey, and what happens when players discover they are victims of a scam.

How did you meet the Nigerian players in Turkey?

It was a coincidence. I was in Turkey looking to do a story on the immigration issues that were happening on the Greek-Turkey border in October 2010. I was sitting in a café with a friend of mine in Istanbul and there was a slew of young West African guys constantly going by the café. I asked if there were many Africans in the area and he told me about a community called Kurtulus, a predominantly immigrant community.

I went down there and noticed a lot of these guys at a café. I went in, sat down to check my email, and began talking to this one kid. His name was Hakim. He told me he was in Turkey to play football and had been there for three months. I asked him what team he played for and he said he didn’t play for a team. He was brought over to Turkey by his coach, who he hadn’t spoken to or seen since he arrived in the country. The coach wasn’t answering his phone any more.

I came back the next day to talk to Hakim. He brought his friend Jerry and I found that there was a team of about 20 to 30 players that had been brought over from Nigeria. The coach was with them for the first seven to 10 days and then disappeared leaving them stranded in a hotel in Istanbul. They didn’t know where to go and somehow find their way down to the immigrant community in Kurtulus near Taksim Square.

With many West Africans living there, the boys felt they had found a community to plug into. There were also football pitches near there, which was great for their dream to play. They found accommodation in some single rooms above an industrial building where 25 to 50 Africans lived. They would play pick-up football games at night and try to find work during the day.

From ‘Black Diamonds’ by Jason Andrew

Was it unusual for players from Africa to be in Turkey?

Yes. At the time, there weren’t as many Africans in Turkey as there are now. There was mixed reactions from local people. They would either take pictures with them because they were exotic or they would be called by derogatory terms to make fun of them and would constantly try to beat them down. It was really difficult for them in the beginning.

It was really hard, as they were never going to be accepted. The only people who accepted them were the ones who were making money from them or those who were also being persecuted for being immigrants. The young Nigerians just basically kept to themselves. They kept to their churches that were all African, the restaurants where people were kind to them.

To see what life is like for Nigerian players abandoned in Turkey and for more images from Jason Andrew’s Black Diamonds project click here

What pathway did the players take to Turkey? What were their expectations?

They were brought over by a coach from Nigeria who told them there were two destinations that they could go to: Germany or Turkey. The truth was they were all going to Turkey because it was easiest at that time to get a 30-day sports visa. The visas allowed players to come for 30 days and try out for football clubs then go back to their original country. What the players understood that to mean was they had 30 days to come play and the teams then recruit them and then they can stay in Turkey, which was not the case.

When it finally dawned on them that they wouldn’t be picked up by any team, they had one or two choices. Either stay [undocumented] or go back home and tell their families who had they borrowed all the money from that it was a scam and nothing had happened. Some went back home but most stayed. Turkey certainly wasn’t where they wanted to be.

The players thought that Turkey was in the European Union [editor’s note: Turkey is not a member of the EU] because they played in the UEFA Champions League. The players would post on social media sites elated about “having won their first medals in Europe” because they had played in a local league. They didn’t understand that the only way for them to actually get to Europe was to cross the Greek border. At the time, things in Greece were worse than they were in Turkey so they ended up staying in Istanbul.

From ‘Black Diamonds’ by Jason Andrew

Describe the players’ lives in Turkey.

Over the five years that I was on this project, I ended up staying and living with the players when I would travel there. Their living conditions were better than what it would be in Nigeria. Having constant electricity and internet was a huge plus for them. Nonetheless, it was rough. Many of the players had children back home. The majority of them came on passports that said they were eight or 10 years younger than they actually were. They were scared constantly of the police; young gangs of boys who would cause them problems; they were scared of theft.

One day while walking walk up a street with Hakim and some boys heckling him, Hakim said to me, “In Turkey I’m nothing but a n$%&er.” In his way of thinking, back home he would be respected but in Turkey he was the bottom of their shoes.

Did you know the players’ immigration status?

All the players had overstayed their visas at the time we met. They were all illegal as they had no immigration status and were flying under the radar. Right now, they all have residency permits. In 2014, the Turkish government began offering them residency permits that cost a lot of money and the guys were able to secure them.

The police didn’t harass them unless they thought they were dealing or transporting drugs. The players kept their noses clean. They only went where they knew they could go and stayed among each other. It got better over the years but never got great.

What were the players living conditions like?

They were initially living in a cement building where they lived in apartments in groups. They then moved to a studio flat that was on the fourth floor with five people – three on the bed and two on the floor. Then they moved to different places as they began to find work. By 2015, they had all pretty much left Istanbul and were living closer to the airport, which was more affordable with nicer apartments.

Do you think the players happy with their situation?

No. Not at all.

From ‘Black Diamonds’ by Jason Andrew

Did they want to return home or move to Europe?

They couldn’t really go back home. In the case of one of the guys, his mother had borrowed close to $5,000 to send him over to Europe. He wasn’t going to go back home until he could provide for his family. He was better off in Turkey trying to make some money that he could send home as opposed to being home with nothing. A few of them started small import export businesses dealing with clothing, car spare parts and whatever else they could to try to make money. Others got work in factories when they realised football wasn’t going to happen at that time.

Did the players still expect to play professional football in the future?

Yes. They even showed up to the big Turkish teams, Besiktas and Galatasaray and told them who they were and that they were there for trials. The teams would be shocked. To this day, the players still harbour ambitions of playing football at the top level. They are right now playing in the fourth division of the amateur leagues in Turkey. Turkish rules state that foreigners can’t play in the second and third divisions but can play in the top division. Problem is, very few to none of the first division coaches will go watch fourth division matches. They are stuck in the lowest division right now. The professional Turkish teams are not picking them up, there’s just no interest.


For more information on Jason and his projects go to www.jasonandrewphotography.com

Interview: Mwende Maureen for Mission 89