- Mohammed 'Mo' Mustafa was raised in the Middle East as a refugee
- Mo went on to represent England Students
There are several well-trodden paths into elite rugby. Many play from a young age at a local club, several attend renowned rugby schools and a few make their way through academy programmes. A less common journey is the one taken by Mohammed ‘Mo’ Mustafa, a Palestinian refugee turned professional player.
Mo’s story begins in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where he was raised for the first few years of his life. “My parents were refugees and are from the Gaza Strip. They moved to Mecca and I was living there when my dad got a job as a doctor in the UK,” says Mo. While his dad was working in England, Mo and his family moved to Jordan to live with his grandparents and it wasn’t until he was four that he joined his dad.
Mo and his family eventually settled in Middlesbrough where Mo’s introduction to rugby began. “I went to school in quite a rough area. I was bullied quite a lot and was really struggling to fit in. Not only was I a lot bigger than everyone else (Mo was already 6’2” in his teens and over 100kg) but I was also foreign and it became a problem.
“By the time I was 15 I had got myself in enough trouble that the headteacher expelled me halfway through my GCSEs. I felt completely disillusioned with the opportunities available to me and was struggling to find my place.”
The decision was made by Mo’s parents to send him to Yarm school in Stockton where he was first introduced to rugby. “I didn’t understand the rules when I first played so when I saw the ball at the back of the ruck I picked it up and hid it under my top. While the rest of the players tried to find it I casually walked under the posts and scored a try. The ref sent me to the sin bin.”
Not the most auspicious of starts but Mo made amazing improvements and within six months of beginning rugby he had been picked at prop for his county, followed by the North of England team and was then invited to England U16s trials.
Despite not being selected by England he continued to play while studying at Yarm and was accepted into Liverpool University to follow in the footsteps of his dad and study medicine. It wasn’t long before he was spotted again.
“Sale saw me while I was playing at university and asked me to play in an academy game against Leicester with the likes of George Ford and Manu Tuilagi playing against me. It was my first exposure at that sort of level and I was given man-of-the-match.”
England Students were next to come knocking and he was selected and picked to play against France Universities in 2011, a significant moment of pride for both Mo and his family. “Being a refugee I never thought I would get this chance. My family all came to watch and it was amazing, if a bit surreal. My dad told me after the game that he was proud of me, it’s the first time he had said that and it meant a lot.”
Despite being a relative newcomer to rugby Mo was offered a professional contract at Leeds where he played for a year in their 1st XV while continuing his training as a doctor. His remarkable stature and physicality – Mo was 135 kilograms when he arrived at Leeds – earned him the nickname ‘the beast from the Middle East’ from fans.
Mo’s remarkable rise through the ranks came to a halt when he had to make the decision to commit entirely to professional rugby or complete his medical degree and, after some thought, he chose the latter.
The decision to stop playing at a professional level was clearly a difficult one for Mo, particularly as he credits the sport for helping get his life in control. “When I arrived in England I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. When I went back to the Middle East they saw me as an Englishman and here people saw me as a refugee. Rugby was the only thing which gave me a sense of belonging.
“I became part of a team and the culture of the sport meant that it didn’t matter what your background was. I fit in somewhere for the first time. My size actually became a good thing. I was accepted and respected and that was huge for me. It taught me the discipline to pursue my education and I turned everything around from being expelled at 15 to becoming a doctor like my dad.”
Mo has now qualified as a doctor and is working at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. Rugby is still a big part of his life and he plays whenever he can. He's also helping the development of his younger brother who is following in Mo's footsteps. “Ever since my parents saw how much rugby gave me they’ve encouraged my brother to play. He’s only 15 but he’s almost as big as me!”
So what next for Mo? “Now that I’m qualified I’d like to work in refugee camps as a doctor. I want to help people who are in the same position as I was when I was a child.”
From Gaza to Middlesbrough may not be the most typical of rugby upbringings but Mo’s experience of what he gained from playing the game encapsulates the best of rugby’s values.