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'I still get flashbacks' - UN Refugee Agency ambassador Begovic opens up on fleeing war-torn Yugoslavia

3:00 AM EDT 5/1/22
In a GOAL exclusive, the Everton goalkeeper talks about the incredible sacrifices his parents made after getting him out of the former Yugoslavia

In a sporting sense, Everton are a club in crisis, with the Premier League side facing relegation from the English top flight for the first time since 1951.

Asmir Begovic is acutely aware of the significance of the situation. However, as someone forced to flee war-torn Yugoslavia during his childhood, the 34-year-old goalkeeper also has a real sense of perspective.

"It was a difficult time for my family and I think the more I grew up, the more I think about it differently because the first time we were refugees, I was only four years of age," he explains in an exclusive interview with GOAL.

"With the pandemic and not a lot going on, I have had small glimpses in my brain, when something comes up, and I remember the travelling and the boats, and just trying to get to a safer environment.

"I get flashbacks every once in a while travelling in the car, too, not so much of when we had to leave Yugoslavia, but when we later had to leave Germany for Canada. That was difficult.

"We didn't have stability because we were on yearly visas and it was proving impossible to get renewed because our income wasn't enough.

"I remember that a lot more and, obviously, the impact that had on my family. These sorts of situations create a sense of unrest but also resilience and a sense of gratefulness for what you have today, which is a good life.

"It drives you to always do better and gives me a sense of fear of not ever wanting to go back."

Begovic, who was born in Trebinje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, freely admits that even today he struggles to process exactly what he went through.

However, there's one thing he's 100 per cent clear on: the incredible sacrifices his parents made to give him the best possible childhood.

"Looking back, it's a combination of things you feel, but I think the biggest thing is the respect for my parents – that is huge.

"As you get older, you have responsibilities in life, and you become a parent yourself. But I could never imagine having to go through some of those situations now. 

"Nobody felt sorry for us and you couldn't feel sorry for yourself. My parents worked multiple jobs and my dad gave up playing football to work as a delivery driver.

"My mum was working in restaurants and as a cleaner, then studied to be a nurse while also learning a new language.

"We got through it; my parents made huge sacrifices. When you're put in that situation, it is quite simple: you either stay or go. We left and they worked out everything as they went along." 

As a kid "with a funny German accent" and a low level of English, Begovic initially found it difficult to settle in Canada.

"Luckily," he says, "I was good at football and that helped me integrate. Of course, when you're younger, you don't overthink these things; you just kind of crack on."

Having continued to excel at football, making a name for himself as a promising young goalkeeper, Begovic eventually returned to Europe to join Portsmouth.

However, because he was on a student visa, he couldn't play competitive fixtures.

"When I turned 18, I had to move to Belgium while paperwork was being sorted out," he explains. "And it was to a club I never even heard of – La Louviere. It was also a club in crisis. 

"Thankfully, Harry Redknapp came in [as manager of the Portsmouth senior side] and saw something in me. From there, you go to play against great Premier League clubs and play against great players, getting you into the national team. 

"And it really was good for me going into the Bosnian national team because a lot of the guys were from refugee families like me, and maybe more German or French because of it. 

"For me, it was like flirting with being Bosnian again after settling in the UK. I say it in my academies now: the biggest trait you need to make it as a footballer is resilience."

Begovic's story is certainly proof of that.

Despite all of the difficulties he and his family went through, this is a footballer with over 450 professional appearances to his name.

Fittingly, he is also now an ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency and it pains him to see the human cost of conflicts such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"This role brings back difficult memories," he admits. "No one likes to see people being displaced by wars. It is absolutely awful.

"These wars are just for people's egos. They are fighting over something that wasn't theirs in the first place. 

"Nothing good will come of it, it is just suffering and people losing things or, worse, loved ones.

"I try to do what I can to give money to the UN, an unbelievable organisation, or by raising awareness and helping people live their dreams.

"I'd say to people to just be open-minded. These people would rather be getting on with their normal lives and now their lives have been turned upside down.

"Be open-minded, compassionate and helpful as possible. Overall, our society is okay but in these moments we can always do more."

Despite his commendable commitment to addressing the refugee crisis, Begovic also remains intent on doing what he can to help Everton beat the drop.

"I have been blessed to play football for a living and I want to do it as long as I can," he says.

"It has obviously been a difficult season for many different reasons. It is just about surviving and kicking on next season. 

"We have got a great manager and staff who have achieved everything in the game you could imagine. I knew some of them from my Chelsea days.

"They are resilient people and we won't give up and stop fighting. We're trying our best and want to make the best of a difficult situation."

Just as Begovic has been doing his whole life.