Three years ago, a penniless and illiterate 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan was dumped by people smugglers in the streets of Lille. Today, Sharif Hassanzade is the French amateur super-lightweight boxing champion.
His story, a Hollywood film script come to life, has both moved and embarrassed the French government. Sharif, 17, who is still an illegal immigrant, has been promised a resident’s permit and even French citizenship by the Immigration Minister, Eric Besson.
But what, critics ask, of all those other, young Afghan refugees that President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to roundup and fly back to Afghanistan?
Sharif’s dearest wish is to become legal so that he can visit his parents, two sisters and brother, who live in Pakistan. They know nothing of his exploits in the boxing ring.
He has told them he has learnt to speak and read French at school but has concealed his sporting activities in case they complain that he is “wasting his time”. In 2006, Sharif Hassanzade’s family scraped together enough money to pay a smuggling gang to take him to France.
After a three-month trek overland, he was abandoned in Lille and taken to a hostel for illegal migrant children at Tourcoing, near the Franco-Belgian border.
He was put into a local school and taken to a “hobbies fair” to find something to occupy his time. Sharif, who had never boxed before, was impressed by the stand of a local boxing club, Punch Boxe Française. He joined the club, learnt to box and, last weekend, travelled to Brittany for the French amateur boxing championships. He won the super-lightweight title.
The next day, the Immigration Minister, M. Besson, said: “Starting now, Sharif Hassanzade can apply... to obtain his residency permit and start, if he so wishes, the procedure to become a citizen.” Sharif told the local newspaper, Nord Eclair: “This is the most beautiful day of my life.
Inside me, it’s all crazy. I owe a lot to my club, my coaches. I really don’t know what to say.” His coach, Bruno Cardosso, said that,when Sharif joined the Tourcoing club he “could not write, could not speak any French” but showed immediate skill in the ring.
The club registered him for the national championship without pointing out that he was not a French citizen. “He had a licence [with our club], that was enough. No one complained about anything, and he went all the way,” M. Cardosso said. Sharif now hopes to fight, for France, in the European amateur championships.
“When I’m in the ring, I represent my city, Tourcoing,” he said. “Now, I would love to represent France. But I’m not French yet.” Sharif’s story is proof, says the immigration ministry, that even illegal migrants are treated fairly. But campaigners say that Sharif was merely lucky to have a special talent.