Syrian baller survives war, finds hope in Manila

Jane Bracher
Syrian baller survives war, finds hope in Manila
A brother kidnapped, a hometown lost. PBA Asian import Michael Madanly flees war-torn Syria and dreams to rebuild again

MANILA, Philippines – Unlike every other Filipino living in the Metro, the capital’s ungodly traffic does not bother Syrian basketball player Michael Madanly. In fact he sees a beauty in it, because it achingly reminds him of home.

“Everything is close,” he said of Manila, a bustling metropolis 5,285 miles away from his hometown of Aleppo in Syria. “Even the traffic, even the way they drive.” 

Madanly, 34, is the Asian import of the NLEX Road Warriors in the Philippine Basketball Association, a veteran swingman who made a name for himself in the 2007 FIBA Asia Championship as the leading scorer. 

Emerging from the shower rooms one afternoon after a light practice, the 6-foot-4 Madanly called back to one of his NLEX teammates inside and said goodbye. He said his hellos to the utility staff cleaning up. It was clear he was quite comfortable here. 

What many locals complain about in this country, Madanly appreciates. And what is generally good, seems even better. More importantly, the food favors his palate.

“Our country is very similar to the Philippines and everything like food is good,” he said. “Even those bad things are the same.” 

Memories are all Madanly has left of Aleppo. 

One of the oldest cities in the world and the largest in Syria, Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has descended into destruction and war between various rebel groups, including terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. The ancient city where Madanly grew up and fell in love with basketball was one of the first to fall when the rebels came to seize control in 2012.

He does not know if he will ever see it stand again. 

“Before 2011 everything was great. My country was one of the best countries in all of the world – safe, secure. I would never think to leave the country before,” Madanly recalled a happier, peaceful time.

“I’m the best player [in Syria] since 2003, I was the MVP there. So they treated me like a foreigner, not as a local. I was happy with my hometown, living there. The atmosphere was nice. The fans are like a family there. Our team is a champion. I had everything there.”

Then without warning, it all turned into a nightmare the country has yet to wake from to this day. 

“After 2011, after the war started there, I thought something bad is gonna come,” he recalled.

“I had a vision that this has never happened before. We started seeing something really weird things like kidnappings, killings. Stuff we never faced before.” 

Brother for ransom

Watching sparingly from a safe distance, it is sometimes too easy for most of the world to overlook the ravaging wars in the Middle East. But for Madanly, the war hit too close to home to simply ignore.

“My brother was also kidnapped,” he shared, “in the beginning, for 10 days.” 

With mounting threats to peace looming in 2011, Madanly left Syria and his lucrative 7-year contract with the Al-Jalaa Club he grew up with for a stint in the Chinese Basketball Association, or CBA. His parents and his brother stayed behind, but not for long.

Terrorists held his brother captive during the intial wave of attacks. Madanly said there was no particular reason why his brother, a manager at a factory then and with no military or government ties, was taken.

Likely, Madanly rued, it was because of their faith.

“We are Christian and this revolution has a very, very Islamic face. We Christians are the minority there,” he explained. 

“If you read about it or if you go to Syria you will see this is Islamic terrorists revolution, it’s not human revolution, it’s not for freedom, it’s not for democracy. It’s for getting Islamic State,” Madanly further lamented, his frustration layering every word.

“We are the target, the Christians are a big target for them. Either they kill us or we have to convert to be like them, or we have to pay money to them every time. Like taxes to stay alive.”

Madanly’s family paid his brother’s ransom and quickly fled after that, leaving all of their possessions, real estate, and their entire life behind.

“They said it was a revolution but it’s not a revolution,” he said. “It’s a bunch of terrorists that we’ve never seen in the country. The whole country was very secure and very safe, now you see people there carrying guns.”


Refuge in basketball

Once Madanly set foot in China, it was non-stop international play for him. The prolific scorer saw action for 3 teams in the CBA, the most recent one being the Jilin Northeast Tigers.

Madanly propelled Jilin from 16th place all the way to 5th in the 2014-2015 season of the CBA – where only the bottom 6 of the 20 teams are allowed to have Asian imports – before making his way to the PBA.

As unrest continues to rattle his home country, there is refuge in basketball. 

“Basketball is my life. I’ve played basketball since I was 9 years old with the same Al-Jalaa team,” Madanly shared.

Basketball was not Madanly’s first sport. He came knocking on the Al-Jalaa Club’s door as a child saying he wanted to play football, the most popular sport in Syria. But Al-Jalaa had only basketball teams, so Madanly made the switch.

It was a blessing in disguise on many levels. He excelled in the sport and won multiple championships both for Al-Jalaa and the Army team, for which he played 3 years as a form of mandatory military service. He also represented Syria with the national team. 

“The hunger for the game and love for the game is what’s making me wake up and wait for sunrise to come and be excited for practice,” Madanly spoke of his daily motivation. “This game grew up with me every day. [I’ve been] playing for 23 years.” 

The war has also taken its toll on the sport Madanly loves, with Al-Jalaa’s arena, gym and other facilities destroyed. Most of the clubs from other cities have also shut down as terrorists invaded. The Syrian League has been cut down to size, as is the national team, which lost its chance to play at this year’s FIBA Asia Championship in China. 

“In some cities the situation is good like in the capital Damascus, the situation is perfect,” Madanly explained. “They also have teams there and they’re playing. So they’re making a league in Damascus City only. It’s a very, very small league. Just to keep basketball alive.”

Madanly is far away from home, but he hopes basketball can somehow spur peace.

And like the average kid escaping a troubled life, he finds a semblance of comfort on a basketball court – no matter where it is.

“My whole feelings from inside change when I come to the basketball court, doing the thing I love to do,” he said. “It’s the love for the game.”

Search for a new home

After surviving the kidnapping, Madanly’s brother flew to California, while his parents are now based in Amsterdam. When they fled, none of them considered it would be for good.

HOPE IN PH. Michael Madanly plays for NLEX in the 2015 PBA Governors' Cup. Staying in the Philippines, he's found there is hope to build a home again. Photo by Czeasar Dancel/Rappler

“When I first left I thought it was only going to be for a couple of months, but it’s been 4 years,” said Madanly, who also recalled being told the war would last 10 years. 

With the way things are playing out in Syria and as ISIS and other terrorist groups continue to rise, the chances of returning home look slim. 

“Everything,” Madanly responded when asked what he misses most about Syria. “It’s home, it’s where you lived your life. All the memories, all the great times, bad times, everything was there. I miss everything.”

“I want to go home so bad. But I can’t,” he said almost desperately. But the harsh truth is “there’s no sense to go back” for Madanly because there is nobody left. His family and friends are all scattered across the globe, seeking refuge in other nations.

“I’m not happy. I’m okay. Still thinking, watching the news and seeing what’s going on,” said Madanly, who shuttles between Amsterdam and Lebanon during offseasons. “We watch the news, contacting our friends and making sure they are okay.”

After having his life unexpectedly and forcibly uprooted, Madanly is in search of a place to build once again. 

“We want to have kids,” he bared the dream he and his wife have. “But the last 4 years was very complicated. We kept moving around. We have two bags that we keep packing every 6 months and we go to a different country. It’s tough to have kids for us.” 

There is hope in Amsterdam, however, with Madanly’s parents there. But in just a few months, he finds there might also be hope here. 

“Me and my wife were talking about it last night,” Madanly shared. “We were saying we can live forever in the Philippines. It’s like home. It’s like very, very close to our country.”

Manila, to Madanly, is seemingly the second coming of Aleppo, the home he lost and will probably never get back.

“I’ve been to the United States and in Europe, we do not like those disciplined places,” he said thoughtfully. “We want it here. The chaos. The way you guys live, you go out every day. There is life.” –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.