JILLIAN ANGELINE (United States) was one of the AIPS Young Reporters* who visited the Al Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan during the current FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and described their personal experience:

—– I’d heard about the Syrian crisis, the bombings and attacks, but what I had not seen enough was the impact on its people – like Hassan and Mohammed who I met playing football, the sweet girls from Daraa and Homs who miss their home.

I’m still trying to fully process my thoughts on my visit to Za’atari and how to be a voice to the voiceless living in the camp which is now home to about 80,000 refugees.

Farah featured in a video for the U-17 Women's World Cup. She had never left the camp until she was taken to the Opening Ceremony

At one time 125,000 people lived in Za’atari, according to Gavin David White, the current Officer-in-Charge and External Relations Officer with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
I didn’t have many preconceived notions in heading to Za’atari. I just knew it was going to be a tough day emotionally.

Preparation . . .

My knowledge was based only on what I had read and watched during some online research.

I think I expected sad residents in makeshift homes suffering from tragedy but what I found instead was joy — giggles from kids who may have seen so much crisis and destruction in their lives but who have found happiness in a football, in their family and the friends surrounding them.

This experience really makes one step back and be grateful for what one has in life. I’m so blessed.

For the task they are faced with, the UNHCR and other NGOs seem to be trying to their best to bring about organisation in the midst of chaos.

I had never been to a refugee camp. But the stigma that comes with the name made me think of tents and no structure. But Za’atari was the exact opposite.

When we first walked into the UNHCR headquarters inside the compound, a huge map hung on the wall with a legend of labelled sections of Za’atari. The map had street names, schools, medical facilities and houses of worship.

The UNHCR does keep track of who is living in the camp, using sophisticated eye scanning technology to register residents. The initial registration process includes an interview, White told us.

There are about three babies born each day in the camp which added up to 4,000 babies born into the camp from its inception. New life blooms from hardship and suffering.

Ongoing conflict

Sadly, the Syrian conflict is still far from over (ceasefires didn’t even seem to create a semblance of peace).

While White told us some have left the camp to move outside Jordan, many of those to whom I talked have been there for three years. Three years!

The camp was created in 2012 with makeshift tents. With time as well as a harsh winter two years ago, homes have become prefab houses though houses seem almost a loose term. When we drove through parts of the camp, the homes seem more like pieces of material thrown together.

While I grew used to seeing these types of structures while working on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, seeing these particular miles of prefab homes is so disheartening.

I’m thankful Jordan has taken in the refugees — now I have an even greater appreciation for Jordan’s place in the Middle East. While they may be like the Switzerland of this region, according to some, they’re also very willing to extend a helping hand in times of disaster.

Message of hope

I’ve only been here in Jordan covering the U-17 Women’s World Cup for a week-and-a-half now but I have seen the power of football to bridge conflict zones, to give people hope and to keep them on the right track.

Without football in Za’atari, I’m not sure what the kids would be doing. But as we drove past desert, barren land and through the dust, groups of kids were running, jumping and kicking with a football.

When we reached the court where the girls had recreational time between classes, some of my AIPS reporter colleagues went to hang out with the girls who were playing football outside, but I was invited to check out the games inside.

I walked in to a room full of screaming girls as they played a game grabbing cones in the centre of the room.

Through the goal and out the other side . . . the homes to 80,000 Syrian refugees

I wasn’t sure how it would go as I only know a handful of Arabic words and they only know a handful of English words.

But if there’s one thing I have learned here in Jordan and in my travels around the world, never underestimate the power of a smile and “Hello.”

Before I knew it, I started snapping because the girls loved to see pictures of themselves.

I was surrounded by these sweet girls and their sweet teachers.

I taught one who was standing behind me to take a picture on my camera — and the girls were being so silly, putting a type of bunny ears on a friend’s head, showing off the peace sign and giggling.

So many laughs in one room — a stark contrast to what’s happening in their home country just on the other side of the border.

Football is not the only outlet and recreation for these children. The UNHCR representative told us some children are being trained to be taekwondo masters. White spoke to the importance of building team spirit, a sense of responsibility and self-esteem through sport.

As the sun set and our bus drove away from Za’atari, it was hard to leave.

Just as we were ending our times with the boys who were playing football, more than one came up to me and was saying or asking something in Arabic.

A colleague translated for me: “When are you coming back? Will you be back tomorrow?”

And tomorrow?

As a journalist, I try my best to check my emotion at the door and just get the story. I have sometimes failed in that goal in my life, but I tried my best to view the situation from a journalist’s perspective until that moment.

I felt tears welling in my eyes as I wished I could have said: “Yes, I’ll be back tomorrow and we can play some more,” or: “See you in a week,” or anything to console these kids who crave contact with the outside world.

The residents are stuck there. While they can make some money doing jobs there, many cannot go back to their homes because it’s too dangerous or ruined while others do not have the funds to go live in Jordanian cities.

Even as a journalist, it’s hard to imagine certain world events as a reality unless you are actually there.

But when you see the faces of those affected day in and day out, it makes me want to use my journalistic knowledge and creativity to effect change and inform the world.

** AIPS is the international sports journalists’ association with 10,000 members worldwide – currently holding a Young Reporters graduation course in at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016. More information: www.AIPSmedia.com

Special thanks to the UNHCR and the Asian Football Development Project for facilitating the AIPS visit to Al Za’atari.

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