May 13, 2015 / 11:35 AM / 3 years ago

Soccer eases life in Jordan refugee camp, until goal dispute

ZAATARI, Jordan (Reuters) - As Hiba’s shot beats the goalkeeper and nestles in the back of the net she turns away, her arms raised in triumph, her face beaming with joy while her team mates scream in delight.

Syrian refugee children play near a tent which was levelled after a heavy snowstorm at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, February 21, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

This, however, is no ordinary goal on an ordinary soccer pitch. For many children, this exuberance marks a return of the childhood torn from them by screams of war in the Syrian homeland they have left behind.

For 13-year-old Hiba and the girls playing soccer with her on the dusty and gravelly, yet meticulously tended field at the Zaatari refugee camp in north-west Jordan, every goal is worth celebrating. Every run, pass and move helps them forget why they are here.

Because everyone, Hiba included, has lost someone close to them in the Syrian war, which has cost around 200,000 lives, including 11,500 children.

”I like coming here to play,“ she tells Reuters in a voice confident for one so young. ”It helps me forget the war, the bombs, the rockets and the children who were killed and it gives me a peace of mind.

“My mother and father are here but I miss my uncle. He was sitting at home when his house was bombed and he was killed. That has made me very sad.”

Hiba is among the estimated 3.8 million who have fled Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

FOUND SANCTUARY

Syrians have fled to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt while 85,000 have found sanctuary at Zaatari, some 15 kms (10 miles) from Jordan’s border with Syria and now one of the world’s largest refugee camps.

While it is far from ideal with regular power cuts, only basic social amenities, rudimentary schools, petty crime, and other tensions born of war fermenting under the hot desert sun, a degree of urban normality is also apparent.

Since the camp opened in July 2012, shops have blossomed in either converted caravans, huts or shacks along a mile-long main street the locals have dubbed Champs Elysees. After three years they look, at the very least, semi-permanent.

Home-made ice creams, kebabs, shoes, fruit and vegetables, spices, flowers, pets, mobile phones, speakers, tools and even wedding dresses are all for sale along the dusty thoroughfare where donkey-pulled carts, bicycles and even some cars jostle for space.

And soccer has taken hold, as it can almost everywhere on the planet.

The Asian Football Development Project (AFDP) has played a huge part in giving not only children and teenagers, but also young men and women, a glimmer of hope amid desperation.

“Almost everyone has lost someone in the war and many of the children have very sad, painful stories,” Carine N‘koue, project co-ordinator of the AFDP’s program in Zaatari, told Reuters.

”But soccer, and some of the other games we organize for the younger ones, is helping to improve their lives.

“Playing soccer is giving them back their self-esteem, and they are learning to be kids again. Many of them stopped being children because of what they have been through.”

GOAL DISPUTE

Many other overseas organizations including world governing body FIFA and European governing body UEFA are involved in the soccer program as well as refugee-aid organizations like the Australian-based Football United.

The pitch where most of the children play is known as the Norway Football Field because of the assistance from the Norwegian FA and Norwegian government, while the South Korean embassy in Jordan organizes a men’s competition.

Per Ravn Omdal, former president of the Norwegian FA, heads Norway’s involvement with Zaatari and visits the camp regularly.

“We are seeing progress from day to day and I am particularly proud of what we are doing for the women and girls,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview from Oslo.

“We are training 33 female coaches, and that is having a profoundly positive affect on everyone’s lives.”

Under strict local customs, girls and boys play together only until they are eight, with women then coaching the girls and men coaching the boys.

Emad Ahmad Al Shabi, 39, one of the boys’ coaches who says he is hoping to obtain his final coaching badges from UEFA, says maybe 600 to 700 children a week come to play.

“If God wills, we want the child to have dreams and to achieve his goal to become a professional soccer player whether the child stays here or goes back to Syria.”

A mile away across the sprawling camp, a crowd of around 1,000 are watching, one or two deep along the touchlines of another gravel pitch, as the keenly contested final of the Korea Ambassador’s Cup unfolds.

The teams have adopted the names of their home cities in Syria and “Damascus FC” score what looks like a fine goal to take a 2-0 lead over “Daraa FC”, the city where the rebellion against Assad ignited four years ago.

Another kind of rebellion threatens when the goal is disallowed for a foul. Players of both sides angrily descend on the linesman whose flag stays raised.

N‘koue suggests it would be a good time to leave.

“This always happens,” she says. “They’ll argue for 25 minutes and then carry on. In the meantime, I know a good place on the Champs Elysees to get a fantastic kebab for lunch.”

Reporting by Mike Collett

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