‘Football has power’: how Arsenal are helping Syrian refugees in Jordan

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Kim Little and her Arsenal teammate Leah Williamson are reflecting on the role football can play in changing lives. The pair have just left a close to hour-long Zoom call with women and girls in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, the world’s largest refugee camp for Syrians who have fled the war in their homeland.

“We play football and people watch us, but I think for us, as a club, as a team and as individuals, the societal impact is way more important,” Little says. “That’s more lasting past football. When we retire from playing it’s not just: ‘Oh, I played OK on the pitch, we did this, we won this.’ Imagine if we can look back in five or 10 years’ time, when I’m not playing, and can say we maybe had an impact on ordinary people’s lives to go and study law or travel? I’d take that any day over winning trophies.”

On Zoom on International Women’s Day were two junior coaches, 16-year-old Nada and 17-year-old Sondos, a 42-year-old mother of five and coach, Salma, and 12-year-old Reem. All are a part of the Coaching for Life programme co-created by The Arsenal Foundation and Save the Children that is in its seventh 20-week cycle.

“I used to live in Bloudan, a village near Damascus,” Salma says. “As the situation got worse there, I moved to Daraa in 2012 but it was still dangerous. In Daraa, a sniper shot my 16-year-old son and he died from the injury five days later. I fled Syria with my then husband and children and arrived at the Za’atari refugee camp in 2013.”

Salma, a coach on the programme, has been at the Za’atari refugee camp since 2013.
Salma, a coach on the programme, has been at the Za’atari refugee camp since 2013. Photograph: Rana Sabha/Save the Children

Nada arrived with her three sisters and one brother in 2014; Sondos in 2012 with 10 family members and joined Coaching for Life with her 16-year-old divorced sister; Reem came aged two, brought by her parents with her three sisters and brother.

Life in the camp is difficult, says the director of The Arsenal Foundation, Mairead King, who last visited in November: “It’s pretty harsh. There isn’t much colour and there isn’t much life. Over the years the structures have become more permanent. It’s corrugated structures, but you might have three or four families living in one of those. It’s in the middle of the desert so everything’s dusty and there’s 80,000 people and 40,000 of them are kids. Maybe six years ago people still thought they would go back to Syria, but now people talk about the camp being their home. It’s been a journey for many families to come to terms with that, to realise that they’re actually probably not going back.”

Gradually things have been added. There are schools, supermarkets and a street they call the Champs-Élysées where makeshift shops sell all sorts, even wedding dresses, but the buildings are basically shacks.

A view of the Zaatari refugee camp in February 2020.
A view of the Zaatari refugee camp in February 2020. Photograph: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

The one patch of green is home to the pitches built and operated by the Coaching for Life programme. The project, which you can donate to here, marries the Arsenal Foundation’s experience of working with underprivileged kids in north London, including those that had been involved in knife crime, to build a sense of belonging with Save the Children’s experience of conflict areas and humanitarian crises.

“Some kids, particularly in the early days, when they were quite traumatised, were really withdrawn and they didn’t want to go to school,” King says. “But if a couple of their mates were going to a football pitch and there was a sense of play and a sense of fun, gradually you could cajole them out of themselves. Football has the power to do that, and has the power to bring them together, and then once we get them together, then that’s when we can give psychosocial support.”

In the past two years the rates of child marriage and gender-based violence have increased in the camp as pre-existing gender inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. As part of the programme, which operates around schooling, girls are taught how to stand up for their rights to education, sport and how to advocate for themselves.

As Reem, Sondos and Nada quiz Williamson and Little on what goes through their heads when in a position to score or one-on-one in defence, who their role models are, what makes Little a good captain and whether they thought they might lose after conceding twice against Birmingham last Sunday, the problems of the camp feel very far away.

Kim Little and Leah Williamson during their Zoom call to Jordan.
Kim Little and Leah Williamson during their Zoom call to Jordan. Photograph: Suzanne Wrack

Poignantly, when Williamson and Little ask the girls what their aspirations are, the ambition is not to be a footballer or coach: “I want to continue my education and study law”, “I want to travel, I don’t know where, outside the camp”, “I want Coaching for Life to expand to include children with disabilities that are bullied in school and the community”, “I want my children to all graduate”. They leave the players speechless.

The experience has Williamson and Little thinking about football and its role.

“We have conversations on the coach, we’ll sit and talk about everything but football really, but I’m finding it hard at the minute, especially with Ukraine, that we keep stepping out on to a pitch and that life is normal here,” says Williamson. “I am battling with that a little bit. But at the same time, you struggle to find a place where you can actually have an impact and for us to have an impact on those girls is to go out and play well on the weekend.”

Little chimes in: “It’s not completely pointless because you are having an impact on people but in the grand scheme of things it’s so irrelevant. In the football world, male and female, we are in this bubble and we get to do a job where we get this tunnel vision sometimes.”

Leah Williamson (right) and Kim Little in action for Arsenal against Chelsea last month.
Leah Williamson (right) and Kim Little in action for Arsenal against Chelsea last month. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Williamson agrees: “You have to remember it is so irrelevant. It’s an incredible, powerful thing that lots of good can come out of and right now us continuing to play, continuing to just be, is the best thing, because we can’t do anything else. But if you offered me a chance to go and visit that camp at the weekend instead of playing my game it would be a moral dilemma. What’s more important when you actually really start to think about it? Yet we are in a performance sport where if we don’t win, or if we don’t play well, then we don’t have that impact. So it’s a constant existential conversation.”

Little likes that. “That’s a good mentality to have when you’re going into anything,” she says. “What’s the broader purpose? Football is a small part of the world but everything is there to make it go round.”

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