—- At the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, football is being used as a tool to help displaced Syrians —- CHRISTIAN RADNEDGE reports: 

More than 100,000 refugees now inhabit the Zaatari refugee camp. They have been – and continue – fleeing their homeland ever since the brutal civil war exploded into so much human devastation in 2011.

Zaatari was opened in July 2012 and is now the third largest city in Jordan. On a visit to the camp, visitors in the country for the Soccerex Asian Forum were able to see the work undertaken by Prince Ali bin Al Hussein’s Asian Football Development Project, UEFA and Spirit of Soccer.

One particular aim is to try to improve the lives of the children on the camp.

Images of Zaatari on the Jordanian side of the Syrian border

For FIFA vice-president Prince Ali, the conference provided the right platform to showcase the achievements of his project.

He says: “We have the right to show what the AFDP has done and also to discuss what we want to do. We want to do it in a proper way and definitely this platform is one of the ways to do it.

Long-term work

“We’re also looking at how we can develop the AFDP further and I think it’s a continual process so that’s we’re going to do in the next few days.”

On a visit to one of the smaller dusty pitches, it was amazing to see how ecstatic the children become when kicking a ball around. But their frustration soon makes an appearance. Little arguments break out among some of them and the tears speak about all those torments beyond words.

The unruliness is not confined to the younger ones, and is perhaps more prevalent in the young adults as Kilian Tobias Kleinschmidt, the camp manager for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, explains.

He says: “We had a competition a couple of days ago it was the Korean ambassadors football cup and just around the end of the match one of the team scored to make it 2-1. Suddenly, the other team started attacking the referee because they felt that he had whistling before or something.

“So they couldn’t resolve that issue and the match was extended by another 40 minutes because until then the discussion continued. So it’s a still long way to go for them to see that the rules are the rules.

Rules and regulations

“Soccer becomes a very important aspect of recreating more healthy approach to competition, to create that adhesion to rules and regulations and follow some form of authority; to respect it.”

Lead partner with UNHCR is the Norwegian Refugee Council whose work has been assisted by the country’s football federation in providing two artificial ‘Norway Football Fields’ to support the soccer project.

Violence and riots within the camp a year ago have mostly subsided. The stone-throwing continues, as this writer felt first hand from a young girl before an older one stepped in.

But excitement for the game is immense, and a large queue forms when the visitors take turns in goal against a barrage of penalties from the kids.

Fatima, 13, beams when she describes her love of football: “As sport I enjoy it. I enjoy watching the matches”. She adds that her favourite team is Barcelona – Spanish football is a common theme in the camp.

In one of the tents Ziad Yousseff regrets that he will not be able to watch the World Cup next month but still predicts Spain to lift the trophy for a second successive time.

There is though the hope that Ziad may get to see the tournament after all.

“We are trying to figure out a way to show all the matches” says Kleinschmidt. “We had the proposal to put up big screens but the police wouldn’t like mass gatherings.

“So now we’re trying to come up with a plan to have smaller communal screenings and see if that will work – but I’m not sure.”

Distracting talk

In his tent Ziad produces his pride and joy, and one of his only possessions in the world – a dusty white football with German flags emblazoned all over it.

“It was slashed only a day after we got it,” he says. “But we were able to stitch it back together and fix it.”

Talk of football heightens the excitement among the other refugees gathered, though that soon dissipates when they talk of Syria. They miss their home and the only hope they hold is their belief that Syria President Bashar Assad will be overthrown sooner or later.

“The Pharaoh probably had more mercy” Ziad says with a wry smile.

In the meantime the power of football can help a little. If all it takes is one ball and a goal, couldn’t more be done? Former Chelsea and West Ham United boss Avram Grant, who was also on the visit, thinks so.

He says: “It’s become more than a game. It’s a simple game that everybody loves but through this love they can get through a tough situation. Most of them enjoy it and they can learn a lot from it.

“If they weren’t playing football I don’t think they would be smiling so much – and not just because they scored a goal against me!”

When will there be more smiles for the people of Zaatari?


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