Syrian refugees find normalcy in football

The sport is increasingly being used as a distraction from the strains of life for young refugees.

Coaches say that negative attitudes towards girls playing football have eased [Elizabeth Whitman/Al Jazeera]

Amman, Jordan – “Maybe you’ve heard about landmines, small bombs. These are very dangerous,” Saleh Shloon, a football coach, said as he stood before a few dozen girls at a school in Kitim, a village in northern Jordan.

He held up a series of posters, at times struggling to unfurl them, with pictures of mines in different shapes and colours. Some girls watched Shloon. Others’ eyes wandered towards the clear blue sky or the concrete walls of their school.

They had just finished 10 minutes of football drills with Shloon and other coaches on a battered concrete pitch where two netless basketball hoops with backboards of cracked wood stood like dead trees. Now, they were sitting for a 20-minute session on mines.

“Most kids’ heroes are the local soccer coach or the captain of the football team,” Scott Lee, the founder of Spirit of Soccer, which helps set up mine-risk education programmes all over the world, including the ones in Jordan, told Al Jazeera.

An hour of football with trained local coaches, “hopefully … sparks a relationship of trust and respect between the coach and the young players, and then they’ll sit and focus” on mines, Lee added.

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Football is indeed considered a powerful tool to catch the attention of easily distractible children and educate them on critical health or safety topics. It also gives children a respite from the strains of living in poverty or violence.

Mine risk education programmes have reached 35,000 children since February 2013 [Elizabeth Whitman/Al Jazeera]

In northern Jordan, mine risk education programmes at local schools have reached 35,000 children since February 2013, according to Ziyad Dweiri, Spirit of Soccer’s Jordanian manager.

Football clubs and tournaments, in villages and in Jordan’s main Syrian refugee camp, Zaatari, also try to give children a few hours of normalcy and build friendly ties in villages amid rising tensions between Jordanians and Syrians.

Of the nearly 600,000 refugees registered in Jordan with the United Nations refugee agency, over 80 percent live in Jordanian villages and cities.

“We all speak football,” said Abeer Rantisi, a Jordanian coach with the Asian Football Development Project, a Jordan-based non-profit that, with different partners, supports many of the football programmes for refugees in the north of the country.

These programmes are part of a blossoming global movement called SDP, or Sport for Development and Peace. Local NGOs and international organisations hail it as “a cross-cutting tool” in development, even as some of them acknowledge, and academics contend, that the movement needs more introspection and self-criticism.

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Racing on the gravel pitch in bare feet or cheap sandals, the girls at Zaatari kicked up puffs of white dust in hot pursuit of the ball. Sometimes, a sandal flew off in the melee. One girl played in socks. Screams swelled from the sidelines after a goal and then faded back into a chorus of chants for one team, “Ye-llow! Ye-llow! Ye-llow!”

“We like sports because we’re forbidden from them,” said Noor, a 14-year-old who has spent the last two years of her life in Zaatari. “There are other girls who’d like to play but their families won’t let them.”

Noor enjoys football because she likes feeling strong, she said, adding that playing helps her relax and briefly forget the chores that she and her sister manage at home, like laundry and washing dishes.

The tournament that day was carried out in two parts, one for girls under 11 and another for girls aged 11-15. The aim is to do one tournament a month, said Carine Nkoue, one of two football and development experts sponsored by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), who helps coach and organise tournaments in the camp.

We like sports because we're forbidden from them. There are other girls who'd like to play but their families won't let them.

by - Noor, 14, Zaatari refugee camp

The real measure of success will be when local coaches – such as ones living in Zaatari, not ones from AFDP or UEFA -are “completely efficient in organising the tournament and managing the kids”, Nkoue added.

Bdour, a female Syrian coach who lives in Zaatari, said that negative attitudes towards girls playing had begun to change. Once the walls of the football pitch were covered, girls could play in privacy, away from the prying eyes of boys, who nevertheless lingered outside the pitch or tried to climb the chain link fence and peek in. As the tournament gained a reputation as a safe, fun escape, more parents let their daughters join, Nkoue and Bdour explained.

“It’s the feedback from the girls and coaches that has gotten parents to let girls play,” Nkoue added.

The programme started in the fall of 2013 with three male coaches. By last May, 22 local female coaches organised the Zaatari tournament for more than 200 girls, up from 50 at the very first tournament. Overall, about 35 coaches now work with more than 500 girls on 17 teams in Zaatari.

Initially, the girls and coaches knew little about football and proper training. And when coaches brought out snacks, the girls would grab all they could. “They were looking to steal everything,” Nkoue said.

“Now, even if a ball goes outside the pitch, the kids will go bring it back.” She added, “They’ve appropriated the project for themselves, and in the end, it’s what we want.”

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But evidence is lacking about the real impact these sports-based programmes have on children.

“The rhetoric upon which these programmes are often based is that sport is universal and … universally popular,” noted Simon Darnell, a lecturer at Durham University who has studied SDP in depth. Yet, “not everybody has universally positive experiences with sport”.

“Sport-based programmes provide an opportunity to reach populations” that could otherwise be hard to reach, Darnell acknowledged. Peter Donnelly, a professor and director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto, added, “Children need activity… Some organised play is not a bad thing.”

But when sport fails to work, “it’s a bit of a blind spot in the whole [SDP] sector, one that doesn’t get talked about very honestly”, Darnell said.

The impact of sports-based programmes remains difficult to measure, experts say [Elizabeth Whitman/Al Jazeera]

In terms of gender, for instance, “traditionally girls have different experiences with sport”, he pointed out. From a cultural perspective, “getting girls to participate in sports can still be a pretty transgressive thing to do in some communities”.

Although the Zaatari programme exemplifies how sports can succeed on multiple fronts, assuming that all kids will love the sport remains problematic. “Some organisations …are still subscribing to, more so than challenging, the fact that sport is traditionally a pretty masculine domain,” Darnell said.

He also questioned what happens to a sport programme once “you insert that into the development machine” and have to prove “it’s doing something” to change people’s lives. “That’s a tough order,” he said.

“Maybe we don’t need soccer to solve the world’s problems,” he suggested. “Maybe we just need to have opportunities for kids, or for anybody, to play.”

Source: Al Jazeera