Fayez Means Victor – Google it.- by Ghenwa Elkhory

Little pebbles try to make holes in my tired legs as I sit crisscrossed on the orange and green asphalt ground in Hboub Club after practice. Coach Fayez’s voice comes from above and breaks the silence.

“You’ve got to be prepared for tomorrow, girls. We need to prove that it’s worth the time to keep this team. Maybe then they’ll consider buying uniforms for you.”

I was pretty young when I met Fayez, but old enough to remember his stories and details. His method in coaching was tough, and I remember feeling like I was about to pass out a few times, but I kept a strong face on in front of the guys watching and waiting aside for their practice.

Fayez Alloush was an exceptional coach. He carried his 6.1 athletic figure proudly, almost like he came from royalty. But we knew our dirty-blond haired coach came from a place very far from royalty, he came from the opposite, actually.

Our coach comes from the town of Salamiyye in Syria. During a big part of Fayez’s childhood, Syria was flooded with war and death, and anyone that got the chance to escape held on to it and tried to make the best of it. But let me tell you, leaving behind a life full of memories, friends, and family is not an easy decision. Salamiyye was where Fayez had his first volleyball lesson and went home later that same day to tell his parents that he knew what he wanted to grow up to be; “A Professional Volleyball player”, said Fayez proudly while watching his parents fake a smile to encourage their son. Their son who is growing up in a warzone, with a limited chance of surviving the next few years without having his home collapse or facing the death of all his loved ones. Salamiyye, where Fayez met his fiancée, where he had his first kiss, and where he fell in love with a volleyball.

I remember that volleyball, it was present wherever Fayez was, often too round to fit into his bag. It was blue and yellow, marked with the word “Mikasa” at its center. We always wondered why our coach was always carrying it around, until he sat us down after practice and told us the story, the story I am lucky enough to write about today, after various interviews with coach Fayez and using bits and pieces from my memories.

Salamiyye, 1995:

After school, eight-year-old Fayez and his friends would start the 30-minute walk home. Often too hot to make it home under the beaming Middle Eastern sun, the boys would attempt to hide and find some shade. One day, sometime around mid-May, Fayez found a blown out blue and yellow ball with dirt all over it. He picked it up and it kept him busy while he was waiting for the sun to die down. Fayez took the ball home with him that day and was welcomed with a “You’d better keep that dirty thing outside!” from his mom.

He says his mom was beautiful, she got married young because of tradition and had never known his dad before, it was an arranged marriage. Nevertheless, they created a meaningful life for Fayez and his 3 brothers. His father was working all the time, but always found time for his family on Sunday and to take the boys out for ice cream that he could not afford. That is how Fayez formed his family values, and he decided that when he got older, he would be a family man and take good care of his family. He would meet Nagham, his present wife, a few years later, but at the time, hiding from the sun was all that was on Fayez’s calendar.

At school, Fayez had a favorite class: physical education. Like any eight-year-old boy, he would spend the whole day waiting to go to the school gym and start playing basketball with his friends. His coach, Amir, a thin, tall, and tan looking guy, particularly liked Fayez and would spend time after class helping him develop his techniques. Amir was a pro volleyball player, but he let his students do what they liked, and he never forced them into trying volleyball. As Fayez and Amir grew closer, Fayez caught some of Amir’s love for volleyball and he soon caught himself walking, holding on tight to his favorite ball, around the block from his house to watch the older men practice volleyball in an old, washed-out stadium where no one goes anymore. These old men seemed centuries old, and Fayez wondered if he would ever be as good as them. “I wonder why nobody comes to watch” Fayez would say to himself, and he soon found himself walking in their direction every day after school, eager to watch them play.

Fayez would always have his blue and yellow ball tucked under his small arm, and one day, one of the old men came up to him, patted his head, and asked him if he would like to help them out by gathering the balls that were too far away. That old man was Salem, and Fayez grew very fond of Salem. Salem was probably around 47 years old, but his body made him look much younger. He must have taken very good care of it. Their relationship went from Fayez gathering stray balls, to Salem staying after practice to teach Fayez some moves. Before he knew it, Fayez was falling in love with volleyball, and he felt like he found something that was finally his.

Once home, Fayez would tell him parents about his practice and all about Salem, only to watch them grow impatient and ask him about his studies. “You mustn’t forget about your studies; you don’t want a future like ours,” they would say.

Fayez didn’t forget his studies, he would work twice as hard in school and run back to the stadium to practice afterwards. The days ran by and soon Fayez was 11 years-old, practicing full time with the elders and playing on a team in his town. 11 is a hard age for boys in Syria, the age where school is no longer a necessity and boys need to work so their families don’t go hungry. Things weren’t any different with Fayez. He was struggling to get proper gym clothes, and real volleyball shoes were only a dream. The only choice left was work. He realized that no one was going to help him beside himself, so he got a job around the neighborhood in construction, kept on focusing on school, and always had energy left for his volleyball practice.

Work in construction was demanding. Fayez was hauling rocks heavier than him and the men he worked with were very short tempered, often slapping him as they walked by for no reason. The only thing that kept Fayez motivated was volleyball. After a few months of work, Fayez bought his first volleyball set of a pair of green shorts and a shirt with the number 9 on them. 9 was his favorite number, but he wasn’t sure why.

Salamiyye was a volleyball magnet, and lots of young boys there wished to become pro players, so Fayez’s chances were somewhat limited. Who would have thought that he would be the one in a million? Fayez’s parents, although weary of their life, chose not to give up on their son’s, and would always encourage Fayez to keep practicing, despite their worry that he would lose everything for this one sport that might not feed him bread in the future. As the years went by, Fayez begun to prove his place on his team and in his town. Game after game, the coaches became wowed with Fayez’s accomplishments and improvement. Soon Fayez turned 14 and was old enough to participate in the national championship, where his team won and Fayez’s hunger for more volleyball grew bigger. After that win, Fayez got accepted on the Syrian national team and he finally felt that the past 6 years of hard work have started to pay off. Poverty still hadn’t left his family, but Fayez did not give up on his school or work, either. He made time for all three and was often too busy to play with his friends. At 16, coaches flooded Fayez’s locker room and they all wanted to work with him, the little boy from Salamiyye. The gym was the toughest part, Fayez never enjoyed it, but his chosen Coach Mony had insisted on Fayez lifting weights and running every day. “You’re already so late!” Mony would shout, “do you want to be a champion or don’t you?”

Mony pushed all of Fayez’s buttons, but he reminded Fayez of himself—young and driven—and he was the reason that other countries began calling. Against Mony’s wishes, Fayez ignored offers from Qatar and decided to stay in school. “It’s too early, I can’t leave my studies behind” Fayez would tell Mony since he had made that promise to his parents. Fayez and Mony became inseparable, and the relationship they formed was more than just a coach and player relationship. Mony became family and Fayez looked up to him, always aiming to please his coach by staying on top of his game and keeping up with his first-division reputation.

After his high school graduation, Fayez decided to go against the odds and enroll in college. Not a lot of boys graduated high school in that part of the world, let alone college. Fayez decided to major in Physical Education and play professional volleyball on the side, earning enough money to pay for his education while keeping the fridge full at home. Mony was always helpful throughout the years and helped keep Fayez on track when he met Nagham and fell in love. Nothing had ever made him feel the way volleyball did, but Nagham came pretty close.


They met on a Wednesday night while Fayez while playing for his college team in another town where Nagham lived. She didn’t plan on watching a volleyball game that night, but her best friend was dating a player and had begged her to come so her parents could let her go. Nagham had bright green eyes, they matched Fayez’s, and light hair with deep curls that bounced off her shoulders. She looked beautiful in the evening light. Fayez can never forget how she jumped up out of her chair to go pick up a stray volleyball while he walked towards her. Fayez should have said thanks, but he was at a loss for words when he saw her shy smile after tossing him the ball. It was hard to concentrate on the game after that, Fayez couldn’t stop thinking about Nagham. Luckily, Fayez found a few mutual friends, and was able to make his move after the game and he officially met Nagham. Nagham Awwad, but he was willing to change her last name. He instantly knew it.

I remember when Nagham moved into our sports club, she was just as pretty as he had described her to be. Fayez would never stop talking about her, and it wasn’t until that day with the volleyball story that he finally told us how they met.

College life was tough, often missing the bus and having to hitch a ride with a stranger, but Fayez wasn’t used to anything coming easy. With Nagham, college work, every-day practice, and family life, Fayez’s life was crowded at 18, but Fayez was one of the few that knew what they wanted, and he was willing to fight for it. His parents encouraged him daily, but never stopped worrying about his future in Syria. “This is no place to have a family, you need to get a real job and go to a better city” they would remind him, but Fayez was too busy and too in love to worry.

It wasn’t until his final year in college that Fayez’s team was invited to play a friendly game in Beirut, Lebanon. Beirut was a three-hour drive from Fayez’s house, but he’s never been. He had heard many stories of the nightlife there, but a poor boy from Salamiyye could only dream of visiting Beirut. The bus ride there was wild, the whole team was hyped, and they spent the whole way singing along to Wael Kfoury while the coach said, “settle down.”

It was 7:00 pm on a Friday, May 7th, 2010, and Fayez left Syria for the first time in his life. Stepping out of the bus felt good, but Fayez’s butt and legs were sore, and he was anxious to be playing in a new country. The game was a friendly one, meaning the audience was mainly made up of friends and girlfriends, no scouts on sight. During the game, Fayez loosened up and began enjoying himself. He had been worrying about nothing. The first set went by quickly. Fayez’s position was always outside hitter, but he was playing opposite hitter that night because of an injury on the team. After winning the first two sets, Fayez noticed the crowd getting bigger. This seemed more than just a friendly game, these Lebanese people looked like they were gathering around to go to a party after the game. Fayez hit the winning shot, and he heard a roar from the surrounding crowd that had formed. He was liking this.

After the game, they boys had a three-hour drive back, but accepted the Lebanese team’s invitation to stay for dinner and a drink in the open-air pubs of Hamra, it was a Friday night anyway. Fayez had the time of his life, he no longer felt like he was the same boy from Salamiyye with no future. For the first time, he could imagine a near and bright future. That night was like no other night the boys had lived before, and the two teams ate and drank and danced until past midnight. Fayez forgot about the pain it took him to get here, he only thought about the feeling of glory that overcame him when he won the final ball. If only Nagham was here to see. It was 3 a.m when the coach put his foot down and told the boys they had 5 minutes to get to the bus, he had kids to get back to. Fayez didn’t like his college coach, he was short and grumpy, but Mony could no longer coach him now—he barely had enough time as it was. So, Fayez left Beirut that night and went back to his little town, but he left without a piece of himself.

After that game in Beirut things started to change drastically. One day, Fayez came home to tell his parents he had been offered a spot on a good team in Lebanon, their coach saw Fayez that night and liked his skills and attitude on the court. Fayez saw his father smile and his mother turn away with a tear flowing down her cheek. “You’re going to like it there, it’s better than Salamiyye” said his dad. But Fayez cleared things up and told them that he would be coming back every night after practice, he still had a semester to graduate anyway.

“But you’ll spend your days on the road, son, and you’ll be too tired to play” said his mom.

“Mom”, Fayez answered, “I’m not going to move to Lebanon. It’s a three-hour drive and there’s a bus every day. Besides, I need to finish school and I can’t leave you and Nagham.”

Fayez had mixed feelings about going on this new adventure, he knew it can be the start of something, but he just had to gather enough courage to step out of his comfort zone first.

Telling Nagham was the problem. “You’re leaving me?” She asked.

Fayez had to clear everything up and she understood that this was good for their future. He promised that after this experience, he would take her with him wherever they went. They were lying on her abandoned roof when he told her. That roof was their special place where no one could find them. They often spent hours up there, stargazing and talking into the night. Nagham always understands Fayez’s busy life. She comes from a similar place and she had to drop out of school at 14 to help her parents in the fields. That night, Fayez had to wipe a tear off Nagham’s peachy lips, and he gently placed a kiss on them and reassured her that things will get better for them.

And things did get better. Lebanon was a step that filled Fayez’s pockets. For the first time since he’s been playing, Fayez could afford to buy his favorite volleyball shoes. It was a grand feeling that overcame him when he took Nagham and they walked into the Mike Sport Outlet and he purchased his first pair of Asics shoes, he even bought matching ones for Nagham. “I’m going to teach you how to play” he told her on their way out. It was a good day that day. But everything came with a price, and Fayez was having the toughest time of his life during his time on the Lebanese team, often getting home at three in the morning and having to take off for class at six. Staying awake in class was hard, and Fayez often found himself dozing off to wake up at the end of class feeling sick. He was sick of this going back and forth, but he had promised his parents and Nagham and now he was stuck.

Beruit 2010

Fayez often wished he could stay in Beirut. He got to discover Beirut because of his time there and the boys on his team instantly let him into their circle. Whenever they could, they would sneak off between practice and take a little road trip to surrounding villages. And that was when Fayez met my uncle, Robby. Robby was a successful businessman, and he was President of our club that year, working to prepare the 2011 first division team for Hboub Club. Hboub Club’s reputation often proceeded them. We were always known for throwing the best grand opening of the season, and our volleyball team is known for all being of the same last name. Robby instantly liked Fayez’s unique set of skills and decided to invest in him, offering him a place on the team which included a room to stay in at the club. Fayez felt fuzzy. Was it really the time to leave Syria? He asked himself. Salamiyye was his whole life and making the decision to move to Lebanon wasn’t easy.

As 2011 approached, Syria was on the edge of a war, and evacuation became a must for young men when the army came knocking on doors to find recruits and no wasn’t an answer. Fayez’s parents hid him in their closet when the knock came. “Our son is in Lebanon playing volleyball” he heard his father say faintly, “he should be back once his championship is over, and he will gladly serve his country”.

That night, Fayez didn’t sleep in his bed, he had to get out of Syria before the war started. He made one single stop to Nagham’s house to say goodbye on his way to a new life. Nagham took it the hardest, but she knew there was no other way, it was either Lebanon or war for him and she loved him too much to ask him to stay. Fayez made their goodbye easier by asking her father for her hand before he left. Her father accepted, and that was just enough for Fayez and Nagham to hold on to the thought that they would soon be married and would never again be apart.

“You’re going to love her” the coach would say to us after practice, “I’m going to get her soon, and she can practice with you girls”.

We’re sitting on the ground, listening to our coach’s story. The way he spoke about Salamiyye, and mostly about Nagham, made us all envious of the feelings he held for this place we’ve never been to. Do we hold the same feelings for Hboub?

Fayez always told us about Nagham and how he tried to get her to practice but she preferred to paint and would refuse to pick up a ball. In Fayez’s case, opposites didn’t only attract, but they stuck together. We admired how our coach loved volleyball, and how he loved Nagham in a whole different way; we could tell that they were the two reasons he got up in the morning.

Hboub 2011

During his first year at Hboub Club playing first division, Fayez grew closer to our community. Our whole village was raised on volleyball, it was all we knew and all we loved. Uncle Rob never let us miss a game, he always rented huge busses and the whole village would fill the busses and together we traveled all across Lebanon, visiting every town with a team and beating them, together. The year 2011 was a prosperous one, Hboub Club achieved great results and made it to the final four in the Lebanese Championship, with Fayez catching the eyes of several other teams who reached out to him in the next seasons.

It was always fun watching our coach play, I know I lived for the games. Even on school nights, my parents didn’t mind me traveling halfway across the country with the team, and that’s part of why our team has survived for so long (1970-2020)—we were always there to support it.

Syria was flooded with death during that year and the war continued into the next. That left Fayez stuck in Lebanon for a few years; the Syrian border was a dangerous place to be, filled with rebels armed with AK-47s and RPG-7. The Syrian army, on the other hand, carried around heavier weaponry, both equally as dangerous as each other. Syria needed to wait, and Fayez couldn’t understand that; his blue and yellow volleyball was the only piece of home he had left. One day, in the midst of the news of excessive bombings, Fayez informed uncle Robby that he was leaving. The whole village attempted to stop him, but Fayez had made up his mind and was going to get Nagham, whether we liked it or not.

A week went by in silence, we went to our games and tried to pick up the way we were before Fayez arrived, but something was missing. I remember the team asking Uncle Robby if he had any news from Syria, only to be met with a “We have to be patient, he will come back as soon as he can”.

Fayez’s absence filled our village, not a day went by when we wouldn’t remember a joke he told us or something he taught us while waiting hungrily in front of our TVs for any new bombings and burning villages.Things began to look a little brighter in Syria around the end of 2012, and after a two month absence, Fayez made his way back to Lebanon with Nagham, his wife.

Life in Lebanon was simple for the newlyweds. Living and playing in Hboub became all Fayez knew, and he was happy. Several teams made Fayez a few offers while he was in Hboub, but he turned them down because he said “this village treated me like family”. Over the years, his game only got better, and his goals only got bigger. Fayez was bringing in amazing results and his jump was higher than ever, perfectly aiming every ball to win a point. In 2014, after being married for around two years, Fayez and Nagham thought about starting a family, but were worried with the life they were leading. Although life in Lebanon was promising and better than Syria (the war had picked right back up again), a room in Hboub Club was no place to raise a child. One night, while they were preparing for bed, Nagham asked Fayez what he thought about Europe, and he replied with one word before going to sleep. He simply said “Dream”. In Arabic, that one word is larger than a sentence. After that night, Fayez and Nagham began digging around for ways to get Visas to Europe, only hitting dead ends because of their cursed nationality. Syria was an obstacle that was going to make their lives harder, but they weren’t going to give up. They started studying the parts of Europe they could go to, searching for potential teams that Fayez could play with, and remembered that Fayez had a long-lost uncle somewhere in Sweden. That’s when the idea hit them.

They were going to go to Sweden, illegally.

And so, preparations began, and they set off on their new journey on September 2014. The Journey to Sweden was not an easy one, Fayez and Nagham took a flight to Turkey where they then boarded a ship that crossed countless countries before arriving to Sweden on December 27th, three months after they left Lebanon. Being illegal refugees did not make anything easier, and the couple faced many difficulties on their trip, often wondering if they had made the wrong decision to leave. Fayez’s volleyball could not make the trip with them because of lack of space, so he left it in the Hboub Club court and asked us to take care of it before saying goodbye. When they left, they took a piece of Hboub with them, but they had to find a better life outside of the Middle East.

As much as Lebanon had to offer, Fayez and Nagham were well aware of the surrounding situation. Syrian Refugees invaded Lebanon, making it their home and replacing Lebanese workers because of their willingness to work at lower wages. The economy was failing.

Life In Sweeden

Once in Sweden, Fayez decided to rent a cheap hotel room until they could find their relatives and start a new life. Meanwhile, Fayez was sending out letters to several volleyball teams in the area they were in, Malmo, and received a letter back a few days later from a local team, KFUM-Malmo. The coach wrote back to Fayez and asked him to come to try-outs. Fayez instantly made the team; the coach had expected way less from a Syrian refugee. Things began to pick up in Sweden for Nagham and Fayez, and they succeeded in their journey to find their relatives, but were not welcomed in. “We have no family from Syria”, was all they heard from behind a closed door.

“Whatever happens, happens for a reason. My dad told me that”. Fayez said to me while I was asking how it felt to be treated like that from family in a new and strange country. Malmo wasn’t strange for Fayez and Nagham for long, they both started to learn the language and Fayez felt like he had been part of the local team for his whole life. After two whole months of practice with KFUM, Fayez finally earned a spot in the local championship. There, the Falkenbergs-VBK found him and their coach instantly approached Fayez after the game. “He offered me a permanent position, a job, and a chance to be sponsored and become legal. How could I refuse that?”. With that, Fayez and Nagham made the 2-hour move to Falkenberg and were appointed jobs as promised. Nagham took the opportunity to become an intern at a local hair salon, and Fayez used his degree to go into teaching volleyball to younger boys and girls. Life in Sweden became a happy one, and soon, Fayez and Nagham welcomed baby Emma into the family. Fayez fell in love a third time, and Emma almost took the place of volleyball in his heart, but Nagham didn’t allow it. “She always encouraged me to do better. Even when I decided to leave volleyball
and get a full-time job somewhere, she wouldn’t let me. I think she knows me better than I know myself,” says Fayez. “I’ve been here for five years, I’ve won the Swedish Championship, built a respectable life for my family, and I’ve realized that this was the right decision all along.”

The years went by quickly in Sweden, and before he knew it, Fayez had turned thirty-three. Fayez has been playing for twenty-five years and he still feels the same way about volleyball—it is the love of his life and he wouldn’t have made it this far without it. “The energy I feel when I’m on the court, it’s incomparable. I can’t really explain it, but it’s like I was born to do this. The eight-year-old boy that found that volleyball that day is still 100% me, I haven’t changed”.

The Aftermath

I’ve heard rumors about Fayez’s parents back in Syria. Rumors of their death because of the war, and I wonder if that’s why Fayez has made the decision to never visit Salamiyye again. After I ask him when he plans on going back, I feel his voice change over the phone. “I am not from Syria. I’m from Lebanon and now from Sweden. Syria killed Fayez, but Lebanon brought him back to life.”

That’s when I asked my ex-coach one last question before hanging up— “How do you respond when you face discrimination because of your nationality and Arabic name?”.

And his answer gave me goosebumps from almost 4,000 miles away.

“I ask them to open up Google, and search for the definition of Fayez”.

I think back to that day, sitting down on the old asphalt floor, looking up towards my coach blocking the blinding sun, and am instantly grateful that I got to hear that story. I wonder if he remembers telling it, and I hope he knows the impact it has made.