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Young Zaatari residents celebrate World Refugee Day with football

By Muath Freij - Jun 21,2014 - Last updated at Jun 21,2014

ZAATARI CAMP –– For Muath Shahma, football is the only source of entertainment at the Zaatari Refugee Camp, over 80km northeast of Amman.

Although the instability in his country drove him far away, he has not stopped playing football thanks to the establishment of a number of pitches at the camp.  

“Playing football at the camp helped me find new friends,” the young footballer added. 

Shahma was one of several young Syrians who took part in a football tournament held on the occasion of the World Cup and to mark World Refugee Day. 

Several local and international agencies were involved in organising the week-long tournament, including the UNHCR and the Jordan Football Association (JFA). 

Gavin White, UNHCR external relations officer, said the contest first began with the work of the JFA, the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP) and UEFA as they built a league system in the camp for both girls and boys.   

“At the beginning of the week, we started the competition with the qualifying games, and the final of the contest... was held on Friday,” White told The Jordan Times before the final matches kicked off, adding that eight boys’ teams and eight girls’ teams took part in the competition.  

He noted that around 1,500 children play football in the Zaatari camp every day.  

Camilla Lodi, education project manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said the youngsters who took part in the tournament are also active in all the youth centres at the camp. 

“The excuse of the World Cup is coming at the right time but of course it is a way of having access to recreational and physical empowerment activities,” she said.

AFDP board member Merissa Khurma said the project has started a number of programmes for Syrian boys and girls as well as for local host communities, primarily in the northern region. 

Government officials say around 1.3 million Syrian refugees currently live in Jordan, with over 85 per cent residing among host communities.

“In the Zaatari camp, we have a team of coaches who have so far trained 70 coaches. This was done in very close coordination with UNHCR as well as other refugee agencies and humanitarian NGOs working in the camp,” Khurma told The Jordan Times.

She noted that it is very important for the AFDP, an Amman-based nonprofit youth commission founded by HRH Prince Ali, to organise football matches on World Refugee Day in order to raise awareness about both the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan and the impact of the refugee crisis on host countries. 

Fifteen-year-old Abdul Ilah Saloum said football is really important for his peers. 

“We used to play football every day in Syria. When we first arrived in the camp, we could not play because there were no fields,” he said. 

“With the construction of these pitches, I can play my favourite game with my friends,” added the Homs-born Saloum, who is a big fan of the Dutch football team.

Syrian coach Abdul Salam Zoubi said football revived the team spirit among young refugees in the camp.

Zoubi, who has been in Zaatari for over a year, added that the pitches provided Syrians with the opportunity to resume playing football after they were forced to stop due to the instability in their country. 

“Syrians used to play around the tents before these pitches were constructed,” the 40-year-old added.  

The father of four said the large number of Syrians taking part in football activities will contribute to reducing child labour. 

There are more than 10 football pitches around Zaatari, two of which were sponsored by the Norway Football Association in partnership with the AFDP and the JFA, according to Khurma.

“The Norwegians have been very generous and built six other pitches in northern Jordan,” the AFDP board member added.  

“We hope through football, which is the world’s most popular sports, we can give them [Syrian children] a little hope. We can see smiles on their faces, we can hear their cheers and we can [feel] perhaps some sense of community and togetherness, and that’s the essence of sports.”

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