Social services sent the boy to Greatwood in Wiltshire, where retired racehorses are used in therapy for children with learning disabilities and other social challenges.
Abdulkareem Musa Adam, 8, and his brother Yusuf, 3, returned from a day of tending camels and sheep to find their village in Darfur, western Sudan, burning to the ground and their mother, father and two sisters massacred.
The boys fled with family friends on donkeys into neighbouring Chad, where, from 2004, they lived for two years in a wretched refugee camp. Abdul later journeyed with adult men to Libya, in search of work. But in the 2011 rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi, Abdul, then 14, was ordered into a child army. He refused, was imprisoned and badly beaten.
His angel of mercy was a Russian doctor, who smuggled him out of a prison hospital in a rubbish bin in the back of a van. Then came a perilous sea crossing of the Mediterranean to France.
Penniless, cold and in shock, he found refuge in plastic rubbish bins again, sleeping rough for 18 months before French police took him to a mosque for care.
Fellow migrants, bent on reaching Britain, got Abdul to join them stowing away in a cross-channel delivery truck. Incredibly, he made most of the 15-hour trip in the wheel arch of the vehicle. Dumped by the people smugglers at a filling station in the town of Swindon, Abdul was soon picked up by British police.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and eventually granted asylum. But he didn’t fit in anywhere, was alienated and care workers found him difficult to deal with.
Then came a turning point in the saga of woe. Social services sent the boy to Greatwood in Wiltshire, where retired racehorses are used in therapy for children with learning disabilities and other social challenges.
“As soon as I walked in, I wanted to live there forever. Sometimes I think I’m more like an animal than a person,” says Abdul, now 22.
“When I touch a horse, I feel I am touching my father and my mother. I become so happy. I can speak to horses much better than I can speak to people.”
His dad had taught him to ride almost before he could walk. “My father loved horses. In Darfur, I never saw a car or a bicycle. We travelled on horseback; we had horse racing, too.”
Abdul’s life was changed dramatically by the graceful, quiet creatures of Greatwood. In time, he was sent to work for a racehorse trainer, then to the Northern Racing College. From there, he cracked a job as a stable lad in the Kingsclere yard of prominent trainer Andrew Balding and worked his way up to being an established work rider.
In 2016 he won a Daily Mirror Pride in Sport award, getting a special message from his favourite jockey, Frankie Dettori. Sports presenter Clare Balding said: “What Abdul has gone through is unimaginable. But his story shows the incredible power of sport to bring people together and help them to heal.”
He says he wants to return to Africa to find his young brother, of whom he has heard nothing for more than a decade. However, the situation in Darfur has remained too dangerous for such an escapade.
In June 2020, on the eve of World Refugee Day, Abdul led out the filly Shadn for Balding at the prestigious Royal Ascot meeting. He also met the Queen on a racecourse.
Abdul’s comment: “Racing, riding, horses … after more riding I feel more happy … I am so grateful I have found safety … I feel that this is my home now. I believe I can find [my brother] one day; I hope I can.”
For the past three years the young man has been writing his life story with journalist Ros Wynne-Jones, who says of him: “Abdul Musa Adam couldn’t be a better example of what safety and kindness can give to a human being who has escaped war, torture and trafficking after becoming a refugee at the age of eight. Britain is lucky to have him, and he is grateful to have a safe home.”
The book, The Journey: An Inspiring True Story of Courage and Hope, is available for pre-publication order on Amazon.
Civil war, migrancy and homelessness are colossal problems for the world. Abdul’s story is a flicker of light in that dark landscape.
Horses aren’t going to solve all our problems, but they can help. If we nurture the common nobility and grace of animals and people, we’ll be a happier bunch.
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