Sports programming brings catharsis to refugee camps

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(Photo: Handout from Blumont)
“We came from war, our mentality was destroyed and so when these activities started, we helped lift spirits,” said football coach and trainer Mariam Al-Shaabin at the Zaatari camp in a phone interview with Jordan News.اضافة اعلان

A Syrian refugee herself, Mariam enrolled in the camp’s incentive-based volunteering scheme (IBV), a program designed to encourage self-sufficiency among refugees, and took part in a number of training courses on the topic.

“We try to ease from the pressures of life and the mental stress,” Shaabin said. “We encourage collaboration and teamwork between people; they start getting along, caring for each other… they start to feel like they belong.”

Zaatari hosts about 80,000 refugees, over half of which are under 18 years old, explained UNHCR external relations officer Mohamed Al-Taher.

“They need activities to fill their time; many of them need to release their energy and take up a hobby,” said Taher. “These activities break barriers between them because sports are a universal language.”

Covering camp coordination, the UNHCR runs 58 community centers in the camp, some of which are dedicated to sports.

“Prior to COVID, the centers announced the activities they are organizing, such as football leagues, and open registration for those who want to take part,” said Taher. “They are then grouped together, teams are formed and competitions are organized.”

Following the onset of COVID, many of the centers adapted their programs and organized remote practices, he added.

“We were among the first programs to adapt our activities to online,” said Siraj Al-Hmoud, senior camp manager with Blumont, an executive partner with the UNHCR, who run several sports and recreational activities within the camp.

“We are in communication with our beneficiaries to practice from home through groups such as WhatsApp and teams, offered them internet bundles and provided some of them with smart devices so they can stay connected with us.”

Shaabin described sending videos of the trainings, information and health guidance to the women she trains throughout the COVID period. “They began to call me asking when the activities will resume, they want to go back to the gym and the fields,” she said. “Now we communicate over the phone; they are open to this especially after being stuck at home.”

In the last five years, over 3,000 beneficiaries benefitted from the sports programs offered by their program, said Hmoud. These include football, basketball, volleyball, kickball, cheerleading and kickboxing.

“Our target is to work with 50 percent females and the other half is males,” said Hmoud. “We try to include everyone in our sports activities, and we even have an open age group.”

In addition to activities within the camp, through support from a number of partners, some refugees are given the opportunity to participate in local and global competitions. For example, a group recently participated in a marathon with Run Jordan.

"From the beginning, we saw that the refugees are receptive to these sports activities and they have passion in wanting to participate in competitions,” Hmoud explained. “This impacts the mental health of the refugees; sports are an outlet for these young people.”

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