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Soccer hero Robben touches the life of a Syrian refugee boy

In late 2014, Tineke Ceelen found herself at a food warehouse located on the Turkish-Syrian border, as director of Stichting Vluchteling, a Dutch humanitarian organization that offers emergency aid to refugees and displaced persons.

She was attending a serious meeting when she felt someone prodding her back. She turned around and looked right into a boy’s eyes. “Are you Russian?” he asked. Surprised, she said, “No, I’m not Russian. I’m Dutch.” The boy’s eyes lit up. “Robben!” he exclaimed. “Do you know Arjen Robben?” 

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“When I grow up I want to be like Arjen Robben.”


The boy, Mohammed, invited Ceelen to have tea at his parents’ home, and told her the story of how he fled his native Syria. Touched by Mohammed’s strength – and the twinkle in his eyes when he talked about his favorite soccer player – she sent a tweet out into the world.

“Mohammed #Kobani is a big Arjen Robben fan. Anyone out there who knows him? One phone call would make a world of difference!”

The tweet took on a life of its own, and one thing led to another. A few months later, two delegates for the organization prepared to travel. First, they met with Arjen Robben at Bayern München. He signed a shirt and a soccer ball for Mohammed. The team then traveled on to Turkey. With some effort, they managed to find Mohammed and deliver the goods.

The look on Mohammed’s face when they showed him Robben’s personal video message was priceless. “I want to see it another thousand times,” the boy said with a dreamy look in his eyes. “When I grow up, I want to be like Arjen Robben.”

Stichting Vluchteling is actively involved in emergency relief in the whole region around Syria. Their small size allows them to be pragmatic in their decision-making. As a result, Stichting Vluchteling can respond more quickly and help pave the way for the bigger relief organizations.

“Of course, fulfilling children’s seemingly trivial wishes is not our core business,” said Stichting Vluchteling’s spokesperson, Pepijn Hentenaar. “Mohammed’s small story perhaps doesn’t represent what it means to offer emergency aid. Yet, it does show how little it takes to bring some hope and warmth to those who are going through a vulnerable time in their lives. Mohammed’s story helped us to generate attention for the bigger, more important story of what’s happening in the lives of so many Syrian refugees right now.”