Refugee footballers in Jordan score a goal for unity
AMMAN, Jordan, July 7 (UNHCR) - Amman's Iraq Unity football club represents troubled Iraq's past and, hopefully, its future. While sectarianism tears their homeland apart, young Iraqi Shia and Sunni Muslims as well as Christians happily play alongside each other in the club's four teams.
They like to kid around and have a good laugh, but they have also proved themselves on the pitch, winning a silver medal at a tournament staged in South Korea last year by the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations and ranking second in the Jordanian capital's amateur football league.
Apart from winning silverware and bridging religious divisions, membership of the club also helps its players to escape from the harsh realities of displacement that they all share. It is the kind of activity encouraged by the UN refugee agency, which in May gave the club 4,500 Jordan dinars (US$6,350) to buy summer and winter playing strips and other equipment.
"This initiative helps to address two important elements: frustration amongst youth and the need for continued unity," said Imran Riza, UNHCR's representative in Jordan. "These recreational activities provide a source of escape from the overall anxieties of displacement."
Gathering three coaches and around 100 players aged from 12-25, this is a club built on a shared love of the beautiful game. Politics, sex and religion are taboo subjects. "We are only concerned with football," said midfielder Abdul.* "We are of different backgrounds, but we have no problems amongst one another," added the 17-year-old.
They are also bound by their shared hardships and experiences as people forced to flee their country because of violence and persecution. Many of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have sought shelter in Jordan are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, while lots of young Iraqis have had their childhoods ruined and their educations disrupted.
UNHCR's support of Iraq Unity is in line with the agency's policy of promoting education and sports activities for all the world's refugee children. Many of the sports and recreational activities organized by UNHCR are accompanied by lessons in subjects such as English - that's the case with Iraq Unity.
A second language can provide the football players with an edge in both work and higher education opportunities. So they are having fun as well as learning. Purposeful activities such as sport can also help counter the psycho-social problems and trauma that affect much of the Iraqi refugee community in Jordan.
And this rubs off on other members of the community, many of whom rely on assistance from UNHCR. They turn out to watch their friends and relatives as they play in different leagues for different age groups. One team will soon be going on tour to North Africa.
Iraq Unity is an exemplar. It has developed camaraderie among Iraqis who might be fighting each other back home; it has built self-confidence among people who sorely need it; and it has instilled a sense of discipline. It also builds hope. "The team unites us; it is everything to us," said one proud Iraq Unity player.
* Name changed for protection reasons
By Dana Bajjali and Tamara Jafar in Amman, Jordan