Fleeing the horrors of the war in Syria, they were welcomed by Jordan and lived in purpose-built camps in the Al Mafraq region. There, they nourished hopes of being able to return to their homeland and their lives, thinking the war would not last long. But days, months and years rolled by, and those displaced Syrians became long-term refugees.
Tens of thousands of Syrians now live in the Al Zaatari camp, housed in makeshift residences built in close proximity. They have access to the most basic services and their situation has improved over time, but the forlorn expressions on the faces of young and old alike speak volumes.
Walk down the roads of the camp and it is notable how many of the open spaces have been turned into stadiums. And it was to one of these stadiums that 300 young Syrian girls aged between six and 14 were recently invited for a special event. They hurried over from all four corners of the camp and gathered together in anticipation, wondering what could be about to unfold.
Shortly afterwards, everything became clear – and the girls found themselves marvelling at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup trophy. All eyes were drawn to the precious silverware, and the girls made sure to snap souvenir pictures, before being presented with shirts, balls and bags sent to the camp by FIFA to allow them to play football in their new environment.
“We came to the Al Zaatari camp to send a message via football, which belongs to everyone without exception,” said Honey Thaljieh, FIFA’s representative. “Of course football cannot resolve conflicts and wars, but it can give hope to refugees who have fled war. Any person who leaves their country in such circumstances has to be able to live with dignity. These young Syrian girls are today showing the world that they deserve to live with dignity and that they can integrate in other societies. They may be young, but they have big dreams, and that is the message we want to give them on their way: dare to dream. We have to thank football and the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup trophy, which has given these young girls their smile back.”
The visit was one of several planned by the Local Organising Committee for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016 in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) team, the Jordan Football Association and the Jordan Authorities. All the kids and their coaches are part of a long-term project that Asian Football Development Project (AFDP) has implemented in the camp with partners such as UEFA Foundation for Children and the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF).
The trophy will be travelling across the country to raise local awareness of the tournament, which is set to be the biggest sporting event ever held in the kingdom.
Hope for the future
“Football gives me self-confidence and fits in with my way of thinking,” explained Shayma Al-Natour, a young Syrian aged 13 who left the town of Daraa with her family. “I started playing football when I was ten, playing with boys out in the street. I enjoyed the sport and I played in every different position before deciding to be a goalkeeper, because I think the No1 is the basis of the team and prevents it from losing.
“I want to say to all the exiled Syrians that even though we are in refugee camps, we deserve to live,” she added. “For me, football is an important part of life because it allows you to express yourself and let out your feelings. It helps us to forget our troubles for a few hours every day.”
After admiring the trophy, the girls split up into teams of seven and contested a few games. One player quickly caught the eye thanks to her excellent technique and powerful shot, Anfal Al-Jalam also reprimanding her colleagues every time her side conceded a goal. Once the matches had finished, we asked the 14-year-old about her football background. “For me, there’s nothing more important at the moment,” she said. “In this camp, football gives me hope in life. I play it two hours every day and I’m happy for those two hours. I never tire of chasing after the ball and having a shot on goal.
“I’ve been playing with the team of the Finnish organisation for two years and I take part in all the events that take place here. A few weeks ago, I played with the German star Mesut Ozil when he visited the camp. Today with the U-17 Women’s World Cup trophy was an even bigger dream come true. When I saw it, I was filled with enthusiasm. That’s why I told off my team-mate when she let the ball in (laughs with her team-mates). The World Cup games are going to be held here in Jordan. It would be great if I was able to watch some of them in Zarka, which is close to the camp. And maybe one day I’ll even be able to take part in this great tournament on the pitch.”
An inspiring day at the Al Zaatari camp then ended with the girls gathering their things and saying a final farewell to the trophy. One of them, Khitam Ali, had a twinkle in her eyes as it was packed away into its box. “I was imagining that I’d won it and was holding it in my hands,” she said with a smile.
Aged 13 and originally from the suburbs of Damas, she has now been playing football for three years. “My father adores the sport and he watches every game. When the Saudi club Al Ahli are playing, he’s glued to the screen. I asked him why and he said ‘Omar Al Somah’ [a Syrian player who has helped Al Ahli win three consecutive titles]. That made me want to start kicking a ball, and so I play with the other girls in the camp and watch games with my father. Football has become one of the most important things in my life.”
She and the other young Syrian girls were left to savour a wonderful experience up close with the U-17 Women’s World Cup trophy. Above all, it has given them a lot of hope for the future – a future where football will remain a vastly important means of alleviating the miseries of life as a refugee.