Raising Hope for Syrian Refugees in Jordan Through the World's Most Popular Sport

As world leaders deliberate endlessly over a political resolution to the conflict in Syria, the cycle of violence continues, the death toll rises and more and more Syrians, mostly women and children, flee their homes with barely the clothes on their back, seeking a safe haven wherever they can find it.

My home country, Jordan, is one safe haven in the region, hosting more than 600,000 Syrians, to date -- about 10 percent of Jordan's total population. And the numbers keep rising with an average of 400 Syrians crossing the border every day.

The equation is simple; as international and regional actors convene and adjourn, time ticks, the violence escalates, the flow of the desperate and the displaced continues, and hope dwindles; caught hostage by, what Arab pundit Rami Khouri dubs, "the world's greatest proxy war since Vietnam."

In Jordan, colossal efforts by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Government of Jordan and a plethora of other international, regional and local organizations and individuals are spent, in time, energy, human and financial resources not only to save lives and provide a safe shelter, but also to create some form of normalcy and try to keep hope afloat for the Syrians.

Kicking for Hope

In Northern Jordan, where more than 60 percent of the Syrian refugees are concentrated, in urban centers in both Irbid, Mafraq, and in the UNHCR camp in Za'atari (population 122,537), an innovative approach to rehabilitation and strengthening resilience amongst refugee children and youth is an untold story worth sharing.

Football (soccer); the world's most popular sport has found its way to the world's second largest refugee camp in Za'atari; providing at risk young Syrians with an enjoyable outlet and helping them cope with the hardship of displacement and the psychological trauma of conflict.

Last month, two coaches from the European football body (UEFA), in partnership with the Amman based NGO, the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP), arrived in Jordan to train Syrian coaches; both men and women and equip them with basic skills to organize football activities for children and youth.

"The training program has been fantastic. We trained 55 coaches so far, including 20 women," recounts French coach Eric Deletang, while on his break between training sessions.

"We are here to set the foundation for the Syrian coaches and hope the program will continue after that," he adds.

The training sessions are coordinated with UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council, as well as International Relief and Development (IRD), which currently runs 5 small football pitches in the camp.

"Football is the best way to get all children together here in Za'atari," says IRD's Bersan Boulad. "In addition to the physical benefits, football also keeps them out of trouble," he adds.

Football can also be a powerful educational tool. One creative program in Za'atari that recognizes this is led by Spirit of Soccer (SOS), and supported by the AFDP as well as the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement at the United States Department of State. SOS merges Mine Risk Education into the football activities to raise awareness amongst at risk Syrian children about the dangers of landmines and explosive remnants of war that they may likely encounter once they return back to Syria.

SOS's program has also run MRE football activities in Jordanian schools in Irbid for both Jordanian and Syrian children. Implemented by the Jordan branch of the Arab Mine Action Consultancy Company (AMACC), this project has reached more than 16,500 children (35 percent of which are girls) in Za'atari and Irbid and has also trained five Syrian coaches since its launch in February 2013.

Bassam, a former football player in Syria, is the chief coach working with the Spirit of Soccer project: "All we need to do is bring out the footballs and cones and hundreds of children run over. It is like magic, it teaches children important messages, and it gives us a little bit of hope."

"When the children see me off the pitch walking around the camp, they call me coach. It is a good feeling. I have gained their trust," he adds.

The Girl Effect

Getting Syrian girls and young women to play football proved to be challenging at the outset. The Syrian families in Za'atari are largely conservative and highly protective of their daughters. But the mindsets started shifting, gradually.

"We only had two girls on the first day. The families were apprehensive about sending their girls to play football. Then week after week, we saw more and more parents accepting the idea of their girls to participate," expresses Reema Ramounieh, former captain for Jordan's National Women's team and one of the coaches participating in various AFDP supported programs for Syrians up north.

In fact, the beauty of football is in its equalizing effect. For girls and young women, it is also a booster of energy and confidence. It is empowering. Carine N'Koue, UEFA's trainer who worked with Eric on training the 20 women coaches tells me that the majority of women she has worked with in Za'atari have never even played sport before. Today, they are given an opportunity to exercise and to take a leadership role in their immediate community to train other girls and organize activities for them.

Football Matters

Football is no panacea to the suffering of the Syrian refugees. This humanitarian calamity is a bitter reality we are all forced to come to terms with in our region. It is the heavy price innocent majorities are paying for the ruinous policies of the power hungry few.

However, as time passes by, Syrian children are growing older in Za'aari and elsewhere across Jordan and neighboring host countries. They deserve a chance at normalcy. They have the right to live their childhood with footballs kicking around, fun whistles blowing and crowds cheering- despite their predicament.

"This is why football matters," believes Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, founder and chairman of AFDP and head of Jordanian football. "It keeps hope for a better future a more colorful image in the minds of these young boys and girls. It is the least we can do to help raise that hope."

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