“There is no passing. That’s not a pass,” says Coach Marwan Azar, shaking his head. “I’ve never seen such stubbornness,” he complains in mock seriousness, even as his face breaks into an even broader grin. “But can I blame them? No. Not after all they’ve been through.” The Jordanian coach is talking about the dozens of under-13-year-old Syrian boys, engaged in a day-long soccer tournament in the Zaatari refugee camp. But there is no annoyance in his voice. No frown on his face. On the contrary, he is smiling as he says this. And his smile reaches his eyes. His voice and tone convey a warmth and tenderness toward these refugee children that he coaches every day.
And then it happens. After seven scoreless games. “THAT’s a pass. You see? Pass, cross, and GOOOAAAL!” The boys careen away as the ball glides into the net, arms outstretched, joy on their faces. Joy — in one of the world’s largest refugee camps. Joy — amid displacement, poverty and despair. Joy, happiness,and laughter do not abound in Zaatari refugee camp. But when they do, it is sometimes on a football pitch.
Some of these boys are wearing jerseys of their favorite international teams and players, those represented in person at that very moment in Brazil for World Cup 2014. The contrast could not be greater, however: the World Cup features the world’s top soccer teams, featuring players who are often wealthy professional athletes, sometimes even with celebrity lifestyles. But here, in Zaatari, the story is not of salaried, adult professionals, but of impoverished refugee children. During the World Cup, the attention of global football fans remains focused on the stadiums of Brazil. But is it here, on dirt and gravel pitches with not a single blade of grass, where football may actually have far greater importance.
At least 100,000 Syrian refugees are housed in Zaatari camp, perhaps 65 percent of whom are children. And these are but a fraction of the overall numbers of Syrian refugees, a million of whom are now in Jordan, some in camps, but most in urban communities such as Irbid, Mafraq and Ramtha. The influx of refugees has placed hardship not only on the refugees but also on the host communities. Jordan is a poor country, with few resources, and was already undergoing its own economic crisis before the refugees began flowing across the border. The situation in northern Jordan has been difficult therefore for all concerned, but of course mostly for the refugees themselves.
So what does soccer or football have to do with this otherwise dire political, economic and social situation? Simply this: football is the key tool being used by the Asia Football Development Program (AFDP) to attempt to ameliorate the lives of the children in both refugee and host communities. It may not be as glamorous as the World Cup, but it is far more inspiring. And it is nothing less than an attempt to save Syrian refugee children in particular from becoming a lost generation.
Led by Prince Ali bin Hussein, FIFA vice president and head of the Jordan Football Association, the AFDP has taken a unique approach to dealing with the refugee crisis. Other NGO’s provide schools, clinics and field hospitals and distribute foodstuffs and supplies. AFDP has augmented these important efforts with a project of its own, a project meant to bring football even to refugee camps. In my own recent conversation with Prince Ali, he was very clear on the point of AFDP efforts. “Food, water, and housing are all priorities,” he said. “But kids also have to have something to do. And sport can build a community spirit. It’s a test case of how you can use sport for good.”
Prince Ali is a member of the ruling Hashemite family in the kingdom of Jordan. And frankly, he could be doing something else. But he chooses not to. As FIFA vice president for Asia, Prince Ali had already made his mark expanding soccer programs especially for women and girls across Asia. When the Syrian war and refugee crisis began, he and his team made sure that refugee children would not be forgotten in the organization’s football outreach efforts. “Football is not an elitist sport, it’s a game for everyone,” Prince Ali noted in our discussion. “And it can help promote the health and well-being of girls and boys.”
Partnering with the UNHCR and PepsiCo, Prince Ali and the AFDP have sponsored a series of programs called “Kick for Hope.” In addition to bringing soccer to the camp, the related “Spirit of Soccer” campaign has actually used football as a teaching tool to educate children about the risks of land mines, while also training them in soccer fundamentals. Importantly, all the AFDP efforts address both boys and girls. AFDP program has also brought coaches, two from Europe and three from Jordan, to train Syrians to be coaches themselves, who then in turn organize boys and girls in teams and leagues.
But soccer also requires fields. So the AFDP has partnered with the Football Association of Norway to construct eight soccer fields — for both Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities. One is in Ramtha, two are in Mafraq, one is in the small village of Sareeh, two are in the new Azraq refugee camp, and two are in the Zaatari refugee camp.
The results of these efforts are clear on the football fields themselves. By the thousands, boys and girls play, they learn skills, they laugh, and they get some semblance of community despite the loss of their homes and communities in Syria. And most importantly, their faces radiate joy. Joy, and perhaps also hope.
Friday, June 20 is World Refugee Day. And in northern Jordan, World Refugee Day will be marked by — what else? Boys’ and girls’ soccer tournaments, bringing together local Jordanian host communities and Syrian refugees. The political and economic circumstances may be difficult at present, but as Prince Ali notes on behalf of AFDP, soccer is a “common denominator” that bridges ethnicity, religion, class, nationality and circumstance. In northern Jordan, soccer is being used as a tool to help give children direction and hope, and to build — or rebuild — communities.
Soccer, or football, will not in any way stop the refugee crisis. It will not help hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees return home. And it will not stop the savagery of the Syrian civil war. But it can, at least, provide some respite to these children. And it can be used as a tool to teach other values too, as in the many AFDP programs. That, in fact, is the point of bringing football to the life of the refugee camps.
And today, right now, there is no soccer match in the world as important as those being played on the pitches of northern Jordan and on the gravel fields of Zaatari.
Curtis Ryan is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. The author thanks Merissa Khurma, without whom this article would not have been possible