Noor Husin: The Afghan refugee who became his country's first EFL player
It is hard to imagine your childhood being played out on a more difficult stage. For the first 18 months of Noor Husin's life, his home city of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan was the scene of a series of devastating battles. By the age of five, his family had fled the country and emigrated to England, desperate to find a new life.
Fifteen years later, Husin became the first Afghan player to appear in the English Football League - with spells at Reading, Crystal Palace and Accrington Stanley before joining current club Notts County. He immediately felt British when he arrived in the UK, yet is still immensely proud to represent Afghanistan.
"I'm aware of just what an achievement that [playing in the ELF] is, given where I started," says the midfielder. "It makes me incredibly proud, but most important is that it can pave the way for up and coming players back home - provide an inspiration for them."
Husin is still just 21. He's is a trailblazer and a poster boy.
Born on the frontline
In May 1997, when Husin was two months old, Mazar was on the frontline of the Afghan civil war. After the Taliban had attempted to implement Sharia law, they were defeated on the city's streets by an uprising of hundreds of Hazaras, thought to be the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
By September, the Taliban had regrouped but was defeated again in Mazar by Junbish, a rebel faction led by Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum had seized control of several regions as early as 1992, and made Mazar the capital of his state. Regular battles in the city created up to a million refugees, with all sides accused of ethnic cleansing. Because aid workers demanded equal treatment for women, they were attacked by the Taliban. That ended the hope of providing humanitarian relief to the area.
When the Taliban eventually took control of Mazar in August 1998, forcing Junbish out of the city and establishing rule over the majority of the country, it was through an assault that was detailed in a report by Human Rights Watch. The Taliban killed everything that moved: men, women, children, animals. They refused to allow the dead to be buried, so bodies rotted on the streets in the baking summer heat. The city was forced to live under grim Taliban rule.
It was not until November 2001 that American troops joined Northern Alliance soldiers - led by Dostum - and began to topple Taliban rule in Mazar. Bombing lasted for two days and street battles then played out in the city once again. Many civilians were killed in the process. Even when the fighting had finally subsided and the American-backed forces controlled the city, communities had been decimated. The future looked unfathomably bleak.
The Husin family had experienced enough. They wanted their young children to grow up away from conflict. For them, peace had only ever been a precursor to war. They needed it to be the norm.
A new life in England far from the horrors of war
"I was quite young, but everyone was aware of conflict," says Husin cautiously. He is quiet and shy, perhaps even uncomfortable with media attention. We are meeting in the reception at Notts County's Meadow Lane stadium, where Noor has just finished eating lunch with his team-mates. As his friends file out and drive home, jostling and joking with one another, he is reflecting on horrors that they could never imagine.
"As a kid you try not to remember too much," he says. "But my family just wanted a better life for their children. The situation wasn't good in Mazar, and my parents were always going to do all they could to get us away from there. Coming to the UK was a way of getting great opportunities. My parents chose England because they believed that this was the best way to start a new life in which we could all hope to achieve."
His dad came to Britain as a refugee and then got permission for the family to follow. The Husin family settled in Croydon, south London and began to rebuild. Life was never easy, but it was easier. Noor stresses he was made to feel incredibly welcome in England. He will forever remain incredibly grateful for that.
"England and Croydon quickly became all I'd known. I've grown up here, I started school in year two and I just felt like this was a normal way of life. Kids are incredibly resilient. I didn't really feel different to anyone else. I was too young to think about that side of things. I found it really easy to adapt, because I could tell my family were happier.
"I also have to say that I never felt like an outsider where I grew up. Everyone was really kind. I picked up the language quickly and I'm sure that helped. I still speak my language fluently, but I felt British straight away. I was surrounded by kind people who made me feel welcome."
Making history - and headlines back home
Husin has no memory of playing football in Afghanistan. But upon enrolling in school in England, he quickly found a natural aptitude for the game. He joined Reading's academy, then moved to Crystal Palace and was named on the bench for Premier League games against Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea.
But when Alan Pardew was sacked in December 2016 - six months after Husin joined the club - and replaced by Sam Allardyce, it was clear the new manager had different ideas. Now Husin is in a League Two relegation fight at Notts County, the road back to the top tier will be hard.
He still has dreams of finally getting that Premier League chance. But he also understands his place in time. Just as important as where he plays is what he represents.
"It's not easy as a kid to grow up in the circumstances I experienced and pull through, but I got away from it and I'm eternally grateful to my parents for that. You can't understand how thankful I am for the life I have here. It has to drive me on.
"I've got aunties and uncles back in Afghanistan and cousins too. They see me getting some media coverage over there, they call me and say: 'We've seen you on the sports news - please keep going, please keep doing well. You are making us happy.'
"In time you might see a few more from my country in the Football League," he says.
In 2016, fellow Afghan Maziar Kouhyar singed a deal at Walsall.
Dreams of a World Cup with Afghanistan
Last month, Husin made his debut for the Afghanistan national team, and it is when talking about this experience that he really opens up. He may have left his home country at a young age, but he will not let that detract from his national pride. It is at international level that Husin can really dream big.
"I think getting my first cap last month was a dream," he says. "Football is a sport that brings people together, and it can play a massive part in bringing Afghanistan together too. We just missed out on qualification for the Asian Cup - it would have been nice to go there, but we have World Cup qualifiers coming up and the Central Asian Cup in June. There are other things to look forward to."
Between 1984 and 2002, Afghanistan played no international matches because of the Civil War and Taliban regime. In their first tournament back, the 2002 Asian Games, they lost 10-0 to Iran, 11-0 to Qatar and 11-0 to Lebanon. Progress will take time, patience and money. The first step is regularly playing matches in their home country, having long been forced to use Turkey as a temporary home.
"I think we can qualify for the World Cup, I honestly believe that," Husin insists. "We've seen what can happen in football. What's the point if you don't aim high and aim big? It's not impossible. We have lots of players in Europe now, and the standard of football is getting better because they play with better players than before.
"Conflict can unite people, particularly behind things like the national football team. Sometimes it can feel like there's not much to celebrate in Afghanistan, but things like this bring people together. Everyone pulls in the same direction, and that gives everyone the motivation to be the best we can be. It would be the biggest achievement of my career if we can go to a World Cup. It's an absolute dream."
Perhaps it is an impossible dream for a country ranked 29th in Asia. But try telling that to a young man who did not even play football until after he had fled his country and yet made it his career. If Husin had stopped to consider the odds stacked against him, he would not be where he is now.