As a young boy growing up in the Netherlands, Roby Hormis often wondered about what his true identity was.
Although he was living in the Netherlands, he also identified with his Iraqi roots, having been born in the Middle East. But the promise of a better life and a future without war, terror and persecution forced Hormis, his parents and his two siblings, to flee Iraq when he was just a year old. They spent three years travelling through the Middle East and Europe as refugees, before finally settling down in the Netherlands.
“It's a fine line between integrating in a new culture and not getting out of touch with your culture at home,” said Hormis, 31, whose extraordinary life journey has taken him to Syria, Turkey and Russia as a refugee and now to Singapore as a eFootball athlete for the December 18-19 Global Esports Games (GEG).
“And I think that the most challenging part was between copying who your friends are at school, and still being who you are at home. I had a hard time figuring out (who I was). I've copied so many people to fit in, then who am I at this point? And am I still Iraqi, I'm also Christian Iraqi.”
“Sometimes I didn't feel I could fit in with my friends. But also not at home, because I became too Dutch. And that, I think, was the most difficult part.”
But there was one place Hormis felt at home, where he felt he could be himself, without really caring who he should be — in online games.
“For me, what I love about gaming is that you can forget everything, including your identity,” said Hormis. “It’s all about focusing on the game, playing together with your teammates, and trying to beat the opponent.”
Some of his best friends are those who met online years ago, friends whom he still keeps in touch with, even though they probably would not have been friends because of their different interests and backgrounds. Unlike the physical world, the virtual space is colour-, race- and gender-blind.
He said: “I would never be friends with them if we met in a bar or somewhere else. But seeing that we put so many hours into something that we like, how we’ve built a relationship, it’s a nice surprise to know (that) despite our different backgrounds, different work, different schools, we are still able to build a relationship.”
While Hormis, who now runs an advertising agency, has made the most of his new life in the Netherlands, thoughts of what life could be and was are never too far away.
“It's either highs and lows that you remember seeing,” said Hormis.
“What always surprises me is the stories and memories I have, besides a few of course, scary ones and intense ones, there are also memories where we have laughed a lot along the way and how we always tried to cheer each other up. I think that's really something that other people see when they're with our family as well.”
Foggy memories of a simple life are recalled when talking about Iraq. In its northern area, his family led humble lives — more focused on one’s hands for agriculture rather than technology. Their search for a life away from the terror and violence which ravaged Iraq would bring them all over the Middle East and Europe. As with any perilous journey, danger loomed at every turn.
Hormis recalled a treacherous journey across a river in Syria. Its swift waters bubbled vigorously as it careened over a thunderous waterfall. The roaring falls served as a reminder of the risks. Their only hope? Flimsy rubber boats and ropes to guide them across the water.
For most of the family, it went as smoothly as it could have. However, panicked screams filled the air when a person on the other side failed to hold on to the rope. A boat, with his four- and nine-year-old brother inside, began its agonizing move downstream.
“I don't know if these are flashbacks or memories made through stories, but I remember sitting there screaming and crying, 'My brothers are drowning, my brothers are drowning',” said Hormis.
“In the end, luckily they managed to catch them. I think if you go through those kinds of things, it's hard to imagine a life without your brothers. And I think people say they can feel that we have something special with the three of us.”
Grateful for the life he has led, Hormis now wants to give back to society and what better way than to combine two things that are close to his heart: esports and refugees. It was almost by chance that Hormis stumbled upon social start-up KLABU online. Primarily based in Amsterdam, it has since expanded to Kenya and Bangladesh. KLABU specialises in creating sportswear to build sports clubs — including esports — for refugees. These spaces also serve as a home for the community.Hormis and KLABU’s founder Jan van Hövell met to see if they could do something together — and the pair instantly hit it off. Said Roby: “The first time I saw it (KLABU), it triggered where I was from, what I've experienced, and how helpful playing and letting problems go can be.” When he stepped into a KLABU shop for the first time, he observed how authentic van Hövell’s goals were. He said: “He (Jan) always seems to make it hard on himself in a positive way. And I think that is a charm of the brand (KLABU). It makes me want to be involved and put time and effort in." Hormis now acts as a beacon for KLABU and, in turn, refugees everywhere. The thought of joining Team #worldconnected — which brings together athletes of different backgrounds, including those who represent the refugee community, people with disabilities, wounded servicemen and women, and other underserved communities — started as a joke due to Hormis’ lack of professional gaming skills. Explained Hormis, who played quite a bit of eFootball in his gaming days: “But then we started thinking, 'Oh, wait, this could actually be a nice opportunity for the tournament and KLABU,'. And seeing as I do know how to play a little from my background, it then became an option. I was really excited." Days away from GEG’21, Hormis hopes that Team #worldconnected manages to, at least, clinch a spot in a final and drive home the importance of inclusivity in esports. He said: “I think sometimes it's forgotten how much energy and effort it takes to step out of your shame of being in a new country, new culture. I think by inviting people actively, that makes the first step a lot smaller. And the nice part about gaming is that you already speak the same language.”