Fahim the Conqueror

by ChessBase
5/10/2012 – A young Bangladeshi chess prodigy became the French Under 12 chess champion, but there is a snag - the boy, or more correctly, his father, is an 'irregular', without papers, and as such, after three and a half years living illegally in France they risk being deported to their native country at any moment. Read on about this incredible struggle against adversity in this touching story by Diana Mihajlova.

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Fahim the Conqueror

By Diana Mihajlova

A young Bangladeshi chess prodigy became the French Under 12 chess champion, but there is a snag - the boy, or more correctly, his father, is an 'irregular', without papers, and as such, after three and a half years living illegally in France they risk being deported to their native country at any moment.

I learned about this story by a post on Facebook that caught my eye, originally posted by Joachim Jo, a French chess player, and shared by many. Part of the text reads: "... the terror at tournaments in Paris, winner of the B Open of the Paris Championship in 2010, twice champion of Île de France (Ed: the Paris region) in 2011 and 2012. However, few people know his personal history: his arrival in France in late 2008 accompanied by his father... the rejection of his asylum application, followed by its gradual exclusion from migrant support organizations ... which eventually resulted in both father and son ending up on the street, in July 2011. He survives only thanks to the solidarity of parents of his peers in his chess club Créteil who give him shelter from time to time... And in the latest French Championships Nîmes, this eleven-year-old Bangladeshi was crowned Champion of France, in the under 12 category. Seven wins, two draws, no defeats...'

Fahim Mohammad, on the podium collecting the trophy
at the French Championships in Nîmes (Photo: the official site)

But, wait! I know this boy! He is my young friend of about three years back, in Budapest ...

In October 2008, in the FM B group of the First Saturday tournaments I had as my opponent a little eight year old Bangladeshi boy. After about four hours play he bit me convincingly, as he did the other opponents in his previous games. After our game, this tiny, gentle creature approached me with a grown-up seriousness that was almost surreal: ‘You actually play well. You gave me the hardest time of them all. Can we play more games?' I took it as a compliment. Yes, we met for more friendly games afterwards and we developed a sort of a buddy relationship.

Diana and Fahim in Budapest, 2008

I met also his father, Nura Alam. The chess playing part was easy and tremendously enjoyable but communication was difficult as the father spoke no word of any European language though the boy was making the utmost effort with an admirable if broken English. I retain a picture of the two of them - the boy always impeccably groomed and perfectly behaved, the father polite, quiet and visibly over-protective of his child, always hand in hand, as if facing together the menace of this to new, frightening world.

Fahim and Nura Alam

This endearing couple reminded me strangely of the father and son in the late 80's movie 'Pelle the Conqueror' winner of an Oscar, Golden Globe, Palme d'Or and other accolades for best foreign production (Danish, director Bille August, with Max von Sydow). This cinematic masterpiece, depicts the struggles of a father and a young son who embark to a foreign land looking for a better life. It is set in the end of the 19th century when impoverished Swedish immigrants were harshly exploited by rich Danish feudal landowners. It is the boy who finds himself fighting the battles and carry on his shoulders the destiny of both himself and his powerless father.

The poster of the movie 'Pelle the Conqueror'

In a similar vein, in the 21st century, a Bangladeshi father and his young son, in pursuit of a better and safer life, are fighting off another harsh reality in a foreign land nowadays - the immigration laws.

It was Nura Alam himself who initiated his son to the game of chess at the age of six. Fahim had already proven his talent with victories back home and in India. We understood that the father's efforts and hopes, after having escaped the political dangers in his native country, were to find a way to stay in Europe where his son may continue to study and play chess. Unfortunately, the best I could do in the circumstances was to share a few meals with the two fortune seekers while the tournament lasted.

Fahim at a restaurant in Budapest

The picture of Fahim's serious face and disciplined manipulation of cutlery remained etched in my memory, much as his piercing and inquisitive look.

Fahim - calm, serious and inquisitive

At the end of the tournament I arranged their trip to Paris where a distant relative was to meet them and I accompanied them to the train station making sure they boarded the right car.

Fahim - the future is bright. Or, is it?

I was pleasantly surprised when few months later, in July 2009 I met them again, at the Paris championship, where Fahim was playing in the A group. I concluded, as a result of wishful thinking, that they must have somehow 'settled in' the French capital. Their communication skills were still scarce and we only exchanged brief greetings and hugs. Little did I know that they were about to embrace the destiny of many living illegally in a 'Western' country, applying and begging for refugee status and surviving on their wits. Fahim continued playing chess, thanks to the warm hospitality by the chess club Créteil where he enrolled, but particularly thanks to FM Xavier Parmentier, the club's coach and for many years coach within the French Chess Federation, who realized the boy's potential and provided him with free training. Soon Xavier was providing his protégé also with food and entry fees to play at tournaments. A commendable gesture that deserves respect and admiration.

Fahim and his coach Xavier Parmentier, out and about in Paris

Fahim did not disappoint. By the following year he had won several competitions around the French capital as well as the Paris Championship's Open B tournament.

Fahim, winner Open B, Paris Championship, 2010 (Photo:
Chess & Strategy)

Today, three and a half years after our encounter, his features and voice have roughened, his expression is confident and intelligent in a perfect French, he is well integrated and respected among his chess friends in the French capital, and he has pocketed an official title 'Champion', at the French Championships in Nîmes, 14 - 21 April, 2012. He is also officially 'on the street'.
Fahim's well-wishers among his chess counterparts, led by his coach Xavier, have mounted a press campaign and very soon the echos of his young life's story resounded on the pages of many French dailies and internet magazines, radio and TV - among whom Le Parisien, InRocks, Europe-Echecs, which lists a couple of nice games played by Fahim and many others, provoking various reactions by the public.

Fahim in the French daily 'Le Parisien'

Last Friday, May 4 2012, the popular French radio station France Inter, in its program 'Interactiv' in which important personalities from the French society and politics engage in an open debate with the general public, the French Prime minister François Fillon was met with a question concerning the young Bangladeshi chess player and his 'status'. The Prime Minister declared : « His case deserves to be considered with great attention and we will not wait for the presidential elections, but will review it immediately'. So, there is a chance!

Fahim is a pupil at the French school Clément-Guyard and as such he has the right to join the national team and represent France at European and World Championships, but this is where his 'irregular status' gains particular importance. He cannot travel as he has no valid documents.

Mr Jordi Lopez, national technical director and the youth teams' selector, told the press that, due to his immigration status, Fahim could not be included in the selection for the current year but '... if his situation were rectified before the European Championship in August or the World Championship in November, we will immediately reintegrate him'.

The team Top-Jeunes 2011 with their coach Xavier Parmentier

This young man conquered the secrets of chess, the hearts of his peers and their families to give him shelter, the French language which he has learned in record time and speaks fluently, his academic duties where he shows results as splendid as in chess, the life humour which at eleven made him a person of 'no abode' against which he stoically perseveres, but, will he conquer the labyrinths of bureaucracy and the immigration rules? This appears to be the toughest reality of them all.

Stories of this kind abound all around the world. It is the malaise of our times. But, this one is about a young chess player, one of our family, and very talented and promising. The impotence to do anything more concrete hurts, we cannot change or influence the immigration laws, but we can at least talk about it, make our community aware, and maybe, just maybe... a chance will smile to Fahim.

Fahim in InRocks (Photo: Audoin Desforges/Les InRocks)

Fahim has already shown strength, and resilience in the face of life absurdities and in spite of all, remained a true warrior and a conqueror on the chess board. He has only one simple wish: to become a chess professional - in France. Let's hope time will be on his side.

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