More sports programmes to help refugee children, says UNHCR

The UN refugee agency is expanding sports programmes to children living in refugee camps in 16 countries to help them rebuild their lives.

Somali refugee girls at the Hartisheik camp in Ethiopia enjoying a game of volleyball.   © UNHCR/R.Chalasani

GENEVA, May 22 (UNHCR) - Teaching refugee children to play again: that's what UNHCR hopes to achieve when it expands sports programmes for children living in refugee camps to a total of 16 countries by the end of this year.

In a press release issued on Wednesday, the UN refugee agency said the new projects will be funded by three of its main sports donors and will focus mainly on Africa and Asia.

Over the last six years, UNHCR has partnered with Olympic Aid, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball to reach out, through sports, to an estimated 3.5 million refugee children in some 1,000 camps and settlements in Africa and Asia. The refugee agency is keen to develop more partnerships with sports-oriented donors to enable it to further expand sports programmes for the world's refugee children.

"We need to be aware that there are many refugee children who have never known the carefree joy of a simple childhood game or the sense of accomplishment that comes from teamwork," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers at a specially convened Olympic Aid forum at the Salt Lake City Winter Games in February this year. "Many have simply forgotten how to be children. Play and teamwork can help heal their emotional scars and restore at least some semblance of normalcy in the otherwise alien environment of a refugee camp."

Out of an estimated 20 million refugees, displaced persons and other vulnerable groups around the world today, 50 per cent are children. Most of them have experienced traumatic forms of violence. The drama that made them refugees has often totally disrupted their traditional family and community structure. Organising regular, structured recreational activities such as team sports is a vital step in rebuilding a destroyed society and boosting the healing process.

Olympic Aid is an international association of athletes committed to promoting healthy sports and play as a right of all the world's children, including refugees. One of its projects was launched in Tanzania, which is host to nearly 500,000 refugees living in camps.

"The Olympic Aid programme aims to encourage children to play. To get them away from domestic responsibilities such as fetching water and firewood, and the care of other siblings. We just want them to play," said Ivana Unluova, UNHCR Information Officer in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam.

She added, "When the programme was launched last year, parents did not understand its value. Coaches had to go into the refugee community and talk to leaders, parents and teachers about it. There is better acceptance now and we have more and more children turning up for play days organised in the camps."

Olympic Aid's football programme at Kakuma camp in Kenya keeps the boys' spirits up.  © UNHCR/B.Press

The role of sports should not be underestimated, as a Sudanese refugee woman in charge of a volleyball programme for girls in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp once told a visiting IOC delegation, "Do not think you are doing good by sending knitting, sewing and basket-weaving materials down here for the girls. When they sit quietly and sew, they remember the horrors that made them refugees."

She explained, "They do not need sewing now, they desperately need the joyful therapy that only group sports and play can bring. It transports them to a normal world. It helps them forget. It heals. Please don't forget the girls."

Sports projects funded by Olympic Aid and IOC are already being run in 10 countries across Africa and Asia - Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola, Nepal, East Timor, Kenya and Tajikistan. IOC is set to expand programmes in five of these countries and will prepare playing fields in refugee camps, purchase sports equipment and hire local trainers to coach young refugees.

Under the expanded sports programme for refugees, Olympic Aid will establish projects in camps and settlements in six more countries - Pakistan, Eritrea, Guinea, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Thailand. The association will send trained athletics coaches to selected refugee sites in these countries for a period of up to three years. The coaches will organise sports activities in the camps and also train youth and adults to enable them to manage the sports programmes by themselves.

Because of limited funding, UNHCR must devote its resources to life-sustaining programmes for refugees and is, therefore, unable to allocate its budget for sports programmes. It relies wholly on the current sports donors to enable it to run and expand sporting activities for refugees. As such, the refugee agency would like to establish new partnerships with sports-oriented donors so as to develop further its sports programmes in refugee camps.

Since 1996, the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball has sponsored annual sports activities in at least two UNHCR-run camps. The organisation sends hundreds of volleyballs and nets to camps and organises national volleyball players to coach refugees. Their sponsorship is expected to continue.