Maher Atyah – Finding Rugby Thousands of Miles from Chaos
Maher Atyah has stories to tell.
Considering that only four years ago the idea of learning English for the then 16-year-old seemed impossible, he’s done a remarkable job getting to a place where telling his story comes a bit easier for him.
Make no mistake: Maher Atyah is remarkable. In many ways. And his stories weave the tapestry of a journey, of a life that has been fraught with so much adversity.
And yet, despite all he’s been through, there Maher is, with his stories, and a wide smile that could light up any room.
You’re wondering who Maher Atyah is; with any luck, his name will one day be synonymous with Major League Rugby. And then everyone will know his story….
To begin, it needs to be said that Maher Atyah is an incredibly optimistic and positive person. He exudes a zest for life that many adults wish they could harness. He is grateful for every opportunity and natural gift he’s been given. He’s thankful for the friends he’s made and the support he’s found in his new home of Prince Rupert, BC.
And he is humble beyond belief.
Yet, this is a young man who no one in the world would blame for a millisecond if his attitude was quite the opposite.
Maher and the Atyah family settled in Canada five years ago from Syria. I say settled, but to actually settle after the last decade of their lives will take time. Their life there was as you might imagine life in a war-torn country to be, and yet also somehow worse.
Maher’s parents Tamman and Fatima had owned a restaurant at one time, only to find themselves and their five young children (the oldest was 12 and the youngest only 5), moving city to city to escape the violence and devastation, all working a series of dangerous jobs that paid next to nothing just so they could survive.
It was a horrible time for Maher and his brothers and sister to be children. There was no school, as education had been shelved in 2011 following the breakout of the war. So instead of formal learning, there was ad-hoc home schooling and 12-14-hour workdays for a ten-year-old Maher as a mechanic and electrician, on top of a 90-minute commute that was incredibly dangerous.
Danger was the name of the game, every single day. They finally left Syria in 2014 for a two year move to Lebanon. The stopover proved an equally dangerous and even lonelier existence, where on top of the daily dangers awaiting them, they also faced racism and even more hardships in the workplace. They dared not say anything, so collectively they kept their heads down and got on with it in the daily hopes that word would come soon for the opportunity to get to Canada and finally be able to exhale. During it all, they stayed a close-knit unit, and Tamman and Fatima did a remarkable job educating the children the best they could. Certainly, the values of working hard and holding their heads high was deeply instilled.
In looking back, Maher doesn’t know how he survived. He would spend four days at a time away from home to work, as he couldn’t afford the commute home, let alone supper. There were times he didn’t want to survive. He admits that readily.
After a long discernment to determine if Canada was the right move for the family and a yearlong application process, the Atyahs got their wish to move to Canada in 2016 and escape the increasing hardship.
The day the family flew to Canada, Maher had yet to experience much in his young life. But here was this 16-year-old who had never been on a plane, and he admits this was the first time he ever – in his life – remembers being a “kid”. He was excited and terrified. He couldn’t believe the miracle of flying from one land to another so far away and so different. The lights in Vancouver seemed surreal when they landed at night.
He had no idea what was in store, hadn’t set foot in a school setting in years, and was nervous to attempt a language that seemed so very difficult. He knew he would miss friends and loved ones at home and didn’t know if he’d ever see them again. Despite his hard life to that point, Maher felt many mixed emotions. The family all fell ill, not being used to the weather. Despite the horrors he had come from, Maher found himself wishing something he thought he never would – to return to Lebanon. Loneliness was the worst experience of the young man’s life.
When he began grade 10, Maher had zero English. He recalls everyone at school sounding like a low incoherent mumbling. Think Charlie Brown’s teacher. He was frustrated that it wasn’t coming to him: “one thing I still have trouble with is how so many words are the same but mean so many different things,” he says. Who could argue that?
This is a person who put himself into a drama class in grade 11 to force himself out of his shell. This is how driven Maher is. This is how much he wanted to fit in.
It was around this time that he was encouraged to run out for rugby. Every day for a month he was asked to check it out by the Charles Hays high school coach, Andy Enns. Finally, despite not knowing a thing about the sport, Atyah agreed to attend a practice. Afterwards, he was glad to be sore, feeling the hard work he’d just put his body through. Enns reminisces on those early days: “I remember seeing Maher in the gym and inviting him to join rugby but he spoke little English and was reluctant to attend, not understanding too much. But a season later he was able to express himself and joined the team as a very fit, strong athlete. He was as fast as my fastest back but could pick me up on his shoulders and squat me with ease. He followed all my coaching instructions and only improved as he attended the practices.”
It didn’t take long for Maher to feel like he was part of something. The team and coaches were equally welcoming as they were impressed with how quickly he improved. He hit the gym and started to bulk up. And slowly, along with the knowledge of rugby, the English started to come on too. Maher had found his groove.
And it should be said, his groove had found him as well.
After the third practice came his first game for the Rainmakers, in Williams Lake. He remembers “killing it. I was so fast. I had the best time,” he reminisces fondly before continuing. “At the time I had hardly any English, but rugby gave me the opportunity to make a lot of friends. You don’t need the language to make friends. It’s all on the field.”
Indeed. Rugby was a shared language between Maher and his teammates. A language they all understood fully. They all helped each other out both off and on the field. It was a family. And as you already know, Maher is all about family and sticking together.
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Enns remembers fondly an early incident which served to immerse the young Atyah not only in Canadian life, but also cement him as being part of the team, one that toils together, takes care of each other, and laughs together. “One of the most memorable events was at Williams Lake where he sustained some “groin trauma” and wanted to see a doctor. We were quite concerned so went to the ER where he had to see the doctor on call, a beautiful young woman. It was obviously uncomfortable for him to have to let her examine him but in the end it was just another thing that he laughs about now.”
Only three years after arriving in Prince Rupert with no English and having missed so much of a typical teenager’s life, Maher Atyah graduated high school. His work ethic shone through everything he did to get to that place. And it was evident on the rugby pitch as well.
“Maher is an amazing young man and a tremendous athlete. His story is one of hard work and dedication both on and off the field,” offers Jason Scherr, Rainmakers assistant coach. “To see him grow and develop with our local high school and men’s team was a huge accomplishment. But to see him excel in the BC Premier League, quickly earning the opportunity to play for Westshore’s Premier Reserve team, shows the true potential Maher has with the sport. We look forward to helping Maher continue to advance his abilities and unlock further opportunities moving forward.”
2019 was a big year for Maher Atyah. It was the start of something big in his rugby journey. With the help of his team, he headed to Victoria and Westshore Rugby Club, where he stayed with a bunch of young men, some of whom now play for Major League Rugby, and some who have represented Canada internationally. It was the most work Atyah has ever done, and also the most fun he’s ever had. He says it was the best three months of his life.
In November, the good news in Maher’s rugby world continued when he was selected to the Celtic Barbarians to play with some of the best players in North America. Coach Paul White was impressed. “Maher is a very strong athlete with a willingness to compete. He was certainly up for anything, as we played him in several different positions. He excelled wherever we put him,” White says.
“Maher has only played rugby for a few short seasons and will continue to improve with more games under his belt,” White adds. “With more game time, his ability to read the field, put himself in the right position, and execute on offence will definitely develop. Maher is a fierce competitor with a great attitude. This is a coach’s dream, to have an athlete who is receptive to new information and makes it happen on the field.”
While the pandemic has put a hold on Maher advancing further in rugby, he has spent the last 18 months working on himself, improving his English, keeping up on what’s going on in the world, and working hard, as he’s always done. He’s also managed to hit the pitch and do some independent training, though not as much as he’d like.
He’s excited to get back to rugby now that training has finally resumed, even though his job at times has interrupted his training times. It’s a juggle Maher is willing to try his best to manage, because rugby is so clearly his happy place. “Rugby changed me so much. I had a lot of opportunity to play. I made 95% of my friends from rugby. Rugby is just like a family – everyone is always doing their best to help each other. It is very different from other sports. It is the best sport to play,” Atyah says.
I can’t emphasize enough how much this young man’s face lights up when he talks about his passion for rugby. He knows he has skills. He’s not the biggest player (5’.7”), but he knows he has advantages with his center of gravity and ability to stand his ground. He loves to carry the ball and to tackle, to clear the ruck. He. Loves. It. The more he talks about rugby, the faster he talks, and the more animated he becomes.
The last time Maher Atyah played was in the Vancouver 7s Invitational in 2020, a week before covid-19 put a stop to rugby of any kind. It wasn’t a debut for Atyah, but it was the first time a lot of people got to see the force that he is.
He impressed. He played for Thunder Rugby and also the Stars that weekend. He loved the experience, and he loved the level of support he felt for pursuing this game that he has a clear talent for. “I really think it’s something you have to work for. It doesn’t come easy – that’s the thing I learned. You have to practice, learn, work hard to get it,” Atyah says.
Robin MacDowell has proven time and again that he’s got a gift for spotting The Gift. And he, along with Jason Scherr, believes that Maher Atyah has what it takes to take rugby to the next level. MacDowell doesn’t mince words. “You have what it takes to go to the MLR,” he tells the young man, who listens with the signature smile. “Obviously covid has stopped everything and everyone is sitting at home, and you’ve been doing the best you can to get on with it. But everyone is in the same boat as you,” he tells an attentive Atyah. “The timing is great for a Maher relaunch,” MacDowell says.
With the greatest work ethic of anyone he has ever met, because not just of the solid character that Maher is gifted with, but also due to where he’s come from, MacDowell knows he could go far with rugby. Before Maher’s stint with Westshore and Victoria, Scherr took MacDowell to meet the Atyah family so MacDowell could explain the opportunity that awaited their son. It was a leap of faith for the family who had been through so very much together. It is that leap of faith that will again encourage Maher to soar and find his footing in rugby.
As we discover in all things, it really does take a village. The rugby village is keen to help Maher reach his goals in any way they are able and the rugby community in Prince Rupert will do all they can to help him achieve success. “The Prince Rupert Seamen Rugby Club has invested in its youth program for over a decade,” Scherr explains. “Sports – and especially rugby – can be used to develop athletes on and off the field, allow individuals to develop skills and confidence, and most importantly build community. Providing individuals and opportunity to grow, excel and take advantage of opportunities through rugby drives the core purpose of our youth program.”
Scherr says “Give Maher the right path forward and the support behind him, and his opportunities will be limitless. Show him what’s possible. He’s got our full support and he’s already got an extensive resume of high-level play.”
“Just meeting Maher and knowing where he’s come from and his journey makes him an even more special person,” Scherr says with obvious fondness for the young man.
It’s easy to be swept up by Maher’s zest for life and all that the future holds for him.
These are the stories we love to tell. This is passion for the game at its purest. This isn’t a young man who grew up with the game around him and all the opportunities to put on the cleats and hit the field. But he is a genuine talent, and given the nature of his life and upbringing, he could well have fallen through the cracks.
Maher feels “so lucky that I found rugby.” No, Maher, rugby is the lucky one.
Now that village just needs to work together to get Maher Atyah where he needs to be so he can realize that dream.
Karen L. Gasbarino, August, 2021
Rugby Hive Editor
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