La Liga Zaatari using football to help young refugees

The programme included a tournament divided into a 20-team U-15 boys league and a 16-team U-13 female league.

AMMAN - Using football to improve the quality of life of the inhabitants of Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, with special emphasis on the children living there, activists developed La Liga Zaatari Social Project.

Built in July 2012, Zaatari Camp, 90km north-east of Amman, is the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, hosting more than 77,000 people, half of them minors, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said. Approximately 18,500 children are enrolled in 32 schools, with 58 community centres offering various activities.

La Liga, the men’s top football division in the Spanish football league system, is the force behind the project.

“It is a great and genuine idea where sport, especially football, is being used to improve the lives of young refugees living in one of the largest refugee camps in the world. It is a great way to let children enjoy their life although they are living in a refugee camp,” sports journalist Ayman Khateeb said.

“War has stolen the innocence of so many children who ended up in the refugee camp away from the environment and daily routine they used to have in their home country and this is very sad. Sport has always been in the life of children and adults and this programme will help them build their life again away from wars and atrocities.”

La Liga Zaatari Social Project was celebrated in a ceremony and captured the attention of people who say sport should be part of the life of every refugee.

Jordanian Prince Ali bin Hussein, president of the Jordan Football Association and founder of the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP Global), in a statement said: “Football is more than just a game and we have seen in Zaatari how playing football can truly help children overcome barriers. We look forward to working with La Liga as they help young refugees not only build their footballing skills but also rebuild their confidence.”

AFDP Global was inaugurated last year and has transformed thousands of lives using football as a catalyst for change. It reached more than 80,000 young people through comprehensive projects. “Football has the power to shape characters and teaches children about the values of teamwork and the importance of taking on responsibility,” Prince Ali said.

More than 750 children have participated in the Zaatari programme, which included a tournament divided into a 20-team U-15 boys league and a 16-team U-13 female league. Thirty-three Spanish football clubs collaborated on the project and donated sports equipment.

Fernando Sanz, who played for Real Madrid and Malaga CF, said: “The children will really profit from the competition. They want to be the next star of La Liga and I think we can maybe find the next Lionel Messi here.”

Local football enthusiasts said it was a move towards helping children share the struggle they faced when escaping from the Syrian war and settling in the camp.

“We really salute the effort of those who worked on making this possible for the children of the camp. These children and future footballers have suffered a lot and some are still suffering the challenges every day with their families, so football, as I see it, is the light at the end of the tunnel for them,” said Gaby Daw, a worker at Caritas Jordan relief agency.

“We have been dealing with refugees for so many years and we have always placed children at the top and this programme will make children see beyond the walls of the camp and prepare them for a better future.”

During the ceremony July 14, La Liga President Javier Tebas said: “The organisation worked for two years on such a programme due to our belief that it is very important for these children. Sustainability for such a programme is crucial… Today is a very special day for La Liga. After all this hard work, we have been able to transmit the philosophy of our competition and the clubs to the neighbourhoods, home and streets of Zaatari.”

“La Liga Zaatari Social Project is not only focused around sports but on educating children about the values of sportsmanship, fair play, teamwork, respect and tolerance. We will continue to work to expand this project further,” he said.

Children at Zaatari were excited by the programme because it is designed to teach them everything about football and about La Liga. Mohammed Masri, a 15-year-old refugee wearing a Granada football club jersey, said: “Football has become part of life and made me develop my skills and fill my free time at the camp. Now we are able to put our time in something useful and constructive.”

Spanish Ambassador to Jordan Aranzazu Banon said: “We are proud that La Liga Zaatari Social Project is already a reality for the more than 750 children that enjoy this initiative.”

The programme is working with children 13 years and younger for girls and 15 years and younger for boys in addition to training 35 trainers, 12 male referees and ten female referees.

Roufan Nahhas, based in Jordan, has been covering cultural issues in Jordan for more than two decades.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.