'We live in a refugee camp and fear for our future – but football gives us hope'

Ekhlas, 14, and Iman, 15, are best friends and football teammates who have been living in a refugee camp since their families fled the conflict in Syria.

They knew each other from their time in Za’atari camp, another refugee camp in Jordan, but became close after they joined the camp’s football training sessions.

Now, the girls are facing separation as Iman’s family have decided to go back to Syria next month, so both will have to look for new teammates and friends.

‘I wish to live a normal life in a house in a city, or village, because living in a shelter with my family does not feel nice,’ says Ekhlas.

‘I would want to feel safe to move around and go where I please without fear. I definitely would be much happier if I could overcome these challenges.

Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, more than 5.6 million people have fled their homes, leaving behind their lives for the unknown, in the hope of finding safety and security for themselves and their families.

Almost 40,000 Syrian refugees fled to the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordon, which is nestled on the boarder of Syria.

The camp is split into ‘villages’. The village-based approach aims to foster a greater sense of ownership and community among residents. But living conditions are tough – temperatures soar to over 40 degrees in the summer and plummet at night. There are no trees, flowers or birds, but rows of temporary metal shelters with only the most basic of facilities.

What is meant to be a temporary shelter is becoming the only home ever known for many children living in Village 5.

‘I always fear the future, and I always wonder, if we go back to Syria, will I be able to continue my education and will I be able to practice the things I love?’ adds Iman.

‘Ekhlas is sad because I am leaving, but we will be going to my grandparents’. We have an agricultural land in Syria full of olive trees – my father is very frustrated here because he can’t work.’

The challenges the two girls face can seem insurmountable, but they both say that discovering football has made life bearable.

‘At first I did not know how to play so I started playing alone, or with my brothers. Then I joined a center in Za’atari camp where the coach taught us the rules and the basics of the game,’ explains Ekhlas.

‘I was taught sportsmanship and how to play according to rules. I believe I can become a professional player – I have so much passion for the game, I love walking onto the pitch more than walking into my house after a long day.

‘Football is crucial for both mental and physical health. It helps me with deal with stress and life’s daily hardships.’

Iman says learning to play football taught her discipline and how to cope with losing. She also loves the way it has helped her build meaningful relationships.

‘I love the challenge and learning new moves and tricks – also meeting new friends and becoming friends with girls that I did not know before,’ she says.

‘Staying active also helps me with my social life as most sports require other players and that is good because it keeps me close to my friends.

‘When I play, I feel nothing but joy and I can laugh no matter how I am feeling.’

Ekhlas has now spent more of her life in refugee camps than she ever did in her family home.

After eight years at the Za’atari camp, her family were moved to Village 5 in Azraq camp and they have been there for a year and half.

‘We had a stable and relatively good life in Za’atari camp and leaving there was hard,’ she explains. ‘We left at 7 am and we reached the reception area in Azraq camp where we spent the whole day. It was a large warehouse and dozens of families were staying with us.

‘We were separated by curtains – I was scared that we would be stuck there, but the next day we arrived at an area called Village 5.

‘I felt that I missed home, relatives, and stability, but after a while we managed to start our new life here, and you can say that it’s going well.

‘My friend Iman will be going back to Syria next month and I don’t know why her family have made this decision!

‘I do not consider going back to Syria – the years that I have lived in Jordan are more than the years I lived in Syria, and I am afraid that my brothers will be enrolled in the army if we go back.’

These are monumental worries for teenagers to have to shoulder, but football allows the pair of them breathing space from their fears. It gives them back a slice of their childhood – even if it is only fleeting.

‘Football is the only sport that I play, and I consider myself to be a good player,’ says Ekhlas. ‘I do not even care if it’s raining, playing under the rain is amazing – it’s more challenging and exciting, I love how it feels.’

International children’s charity Plan International has been working in Village 5 since 2016 to address the biggest inequalities and violations of children’s rights.

Village 5 is a closed camp, where movement of the people and their families is restricted. The charity is focusing on providing a safe place for children to play and learn in the camp, and football is a firm favorite.

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