After exposing racism within cricket, Azeem Rafiq himself was accused of making anti-Semitic statements in the past. In a bid to make his wrongs right, the cricketer visited Auschwitz to better understand the horrors of World War II, reports Sports Editor Steve Scott
When Azeem Rafiq lifted the lid on English cricket’s endemic yet hidden racist culture, he could not have predicted around six months later he’d end up in Poland, standing silently in front of two mass graves. One for adults, the other children – 10,000 people in total were buried here, mainly Jews, and the Polish families who tried to help them escape the Nazis during the German occupation.
So how did he end up here?
Not long after Rafiq threw the sport he loved into turmoil, by exposing the racist abuse he and many others had suffered on a daily basis, anti-Semitic messages he’d written many years before emerged online and led to accusations that he was a hypocrite.
'To see that I'd made comments that hurt the people that supported me was difficult'
Unlike many of those he’s accused of racism, he apologised immediately and reached out to the Jewish community in the UK, asking them to advise him on how he could make a terrible wrong, right.
Under their guidance, particularly from the March of the Living UK group, Rafiq has begun a journey of redemption that led him to the former Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.
“I wanted them to decide what forgiveness looks like or what I had to go through for them to understand that I'm really sorry. And I have done that. And I'll continue to do that. It's always the victims' decision as to what forgiveness looks like.”
It's likely a few cynics will whisper that what Rafiq is doing is all for show, something he wouldn’t have considered had he not got caught out. It is a criticism he’s happy to confront.
“There's going to be people that are going to say that and that's fine. Everyone's entitled to their view. I can't stop people thinking that. From my point of view, I know that I've done it with an open heart and trying to better myself.”
'It's always the victims' decision as to what forgiveness looks like'
During his visit, he listened to a few of the remaining camp survivors about the horrors they suffered - a living reminder of where discrimination, at its most evil, can lead.
“The one thing that stuck out for me is, from the Holocaust survivors I’ve spoken to, how once you've listened to a witness, you become a witness yourself and how, sort of, the passion they have to tell their story to make sure that people know what happened, not from feeling any sympathy for them, but just to make sure that it doesn't happen again.”
And their harrowing testimonies, Rafiq believes, can influence his campaign to eradicate racism in cricket, not least by encouraging others to be less tolerant of any casual discrimination.
“If you can try and step in, even if it’s something like ‘Stop it, that's not acceptable,’ to stop it going any further and talk about the profound effect on human lives that it can have on an extreme level. It's just important that we've got to stop being bystanders.”
'The minute you forget about it, it's got a chance of it happening again'
Given all that has happened since he shone a light on cricket’s shameful secret, does he regret speaking out? Not a bit of it.
“I've had some horrible days, dark moments but I try and think what would it be like if I hadn't spoken out?
"I've never said I was perfect, but I know what happened to me, and what happens on a daily basis to a lot of people, is not acceptable.
"There's a thing from speaking to Holocaust survivors and different people, and one thing that hurts me the most is the bystanders in all of this.
"And by not speaking out, I'd become that bystander and that's not something I can live with.”
His visit here ended with the annual March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau, where more than one million Jews were murdered.
There is no doubt this exposure to one of modern history’s darkest chapters has had a huge impact.
And he has emerged from it, more determined than ever and more convinced that the steps he took, and continues to take, to confront his abusers has been worth it.