Watching Muslim stars Bachar Houli and Adam Saad proudly represent their families and religion on the big stage of AFL football has always been a highlight of 16-year-old Ayman El Haddad’s week.

But it is no longer simply the on-field prowess of the two brilliant rebounding defenders that helps the year 10 student from Fawkner College smile.

Ayman is a part of the Bachar Houli Foundation’s ‘The A Game’ program, designed to engage at-risk youth from an Islamic background, and has this year gained a new lease on life with Houli and Saad as his mentors.

At times, Ayman admits he has struggled to keep himself out of trouble, and with a father living in Morocco, he has not always had a father-figure in his home life.

“People like me, we feel disadvantaged at times; we don’t feel like we always have the best opportunity to give it a go,” Ayman said.

“Seeing Bachar and speaking to him, having him tell me that you have to work hard, and you have to work through adversity, it has given me hope. It has completely changed my mentality.”

Houli, as a mentor, has helped Ayman realise that he can improve and better himself, every single day of his life.

“I remember when we just started on the program Bachar called me on the phone while I was having breakfast. We just had a very nice chat,” Ayman said.

“Sometimes because of the places I have grown up in, I lost hope. But Bachar and Adam, they came from the same areas that we did, they had to go through the same hardships if not more.”

Ayman said Houli had taught him to be grateful for what he has, instead of focusing on the things that he does not possess.

“The gratitude activities we do in the program, I got a lot out of them,” he added.

“I called up my mum and I told her how thankful I was for the things she had done for me, and she just broke down in tears, she was crying and hearing that on the phone it was such a warm feeling and I really loved it.

“I feel like I have changed, I have a more positive growth mindset than I did have. I hope my mum can see the change.”

One of Ayman’s Fawkner College teachers, Chad Owens, said he felt Ayman, who “has had his fair share of issues with teachers in the past”, had benefitted greatly from the program.

“I noticed Ayman’s general intensity towards getting better as a person really increased once he joined the program. I think he saw from the people that were presenting that it was important for him to not only speak about what he wanted to do but also to act upon it,” he said.

“I spoke to his mum and she had really noticed a change in his general behaviour, particularly his gratefulness towards what he had.

“Instead of saying ‘I cannot be successful’, he started changing his way of thinking. He knows that he can be successful if he is willing to put the work in, it’s not going to just happen for him, he has to still work hard but if he does then there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ayman (standing, second from the right) posing for a team photo before a local soccer match.

For now, Ayman has his sights set on completing his studies and continuing to be grateful for what he has in life.

“I have put big goals in place which I never really used to have; Bachar, in particular, helped with that,” he said.

“He told me to always to aim high and always push myself at the very least to try and be the best person I can.

“For me success is being comfortable in life, just seeing my family being happy and not always having to worry about who is paying for the bills and that kind of stuff.

“Finishing school is going to make my mum very happy, so I am trying to do that and complete my VCE and start off my pathways in life.”

Ayman, who also added how influential he found a session with Richmond Football Club’s Marlion Pickett on overcoming adversity as part of the program, said he would urge any other young person like him to embrace the program.

“At the beginning, I was thinking it was just another program and not much of a big deal, but it’s honestly changed my life completely,” he said.

“[It’s changed] the way I think, the way I act, the respect I have towards people, and I [now] hold myself higher.

“It’s amazing, I feel privileged to be in this program.”

Using sport as a vehicle, The A-Game Youth Leadership Program aims to enrich the lives of its participants, giving them the tools and resilience required to succeed.

The six-week program focuses on three key pillars; physical health, leadership and identity, with practical and engaging modules to support young people to be the best versions of themselves.

Further to this, the program provides participants with wraparound services from mental health services, personal coaching, employment opportunities and community connections.