Displaced by War, United by Sports
“The Za’atari Camp is home to approximately 76,000 people who fled violent conflict in Syria, seeking refuge in Jordan. Each day across the bustling camp, children attend school; entrepreneurs run businesses; people attend courses for technical and vocational skills; and neighbors come together to build a community.
More than half of the camp’s residents are children under the age of 18, many of whom were born at Za’atari or have only distant memories of life in Syria. Their resilience and ability to adapt to difficult situations is inspiring. The creativity I have seen from young people during the four years I’ve worked at Za’atari—whether building robots in the Innovation Lab or developing a camp-wide campaign to encourage the community to take care of the environment— shows me the hope and promise of their future.
And while all of these young people have their different talents and interests, one area I always see their excitement come through clearly is in sports. Sports help to eliminate the barriers between them.
Wherever you are in the world, if a football is rolled onto a field, kids will come running. Play is a universal language, and regardless of where children are from or what their experience has been, it is critical to developing friendships, having fun, and relieving stress. Sports are familiar and consistent—which can be a comfort when children find themselves living surrounded by uncertainty.
At Za’atari, physical activity is young people’s favorite option to pass time. When a new sport is introduced—such as teqball or kickboxing—they just want to learn and try. Watching young people get back in line at a teqball table over and over again for another turn, laughing and joking with their friends the whole time, you can forget you’re in a refugee camp—and hopefully for a brief moment, they do too.
Providing sports activities at the camp is not just about winning or losing. It is to focus young people on having fun and being active. Hidden amidst the fun, these young athletes are learning critical lessons that will serve them throughout life.
Sports play an integral role in shaping children’s minds and bodies—impacting them physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. While these factors are important for all children, young people living in refugee camps experience loss and trauma beyond what many of us could imagine, making these opportunities to play and just be a kid even more vital.
At Za’atari, sport is an outlet for young people dealing with the anxiety caused by displacement and life in the close quarters of a camp. Sport helps children find better ways to cope with the highs and lows of life—learning to understand and navigate emotions and work through frustration in a productive way.
Sports also teach patience and commitment. Children learn that it can take a lot of practice to improve their physical skills—a lesson reiterated by international coaches and sports figures visiting the camp and sharing their experiences with young people. We work to connect this dedication to endeavors off the field as children channel their newfound confidence and commitment into their studies too.
As with all activities across Za’atari, it is important to ensure that the opportunity to play is extended to as many children as possible. Wheelchair races give young people with disabilities the chance to test their speed, and there is a commitment to empowering girls through their own teams. Girls, boys, children with disabilities—all of them are the leaders of tomorrow, and the values of sport will guide them into the future.
Playing together helps children develop many of the social skills they will need for life. It teaches them to cooperate, to be less selfish, and to listen to others. It helps children make new friends and builds their social circle outside their house and school, creating a sense of belonging.
Ultimately, this may be one of the greatest lessons young people at Za’atari learn through sport—belonging and being a part of something. When children feel rooted, they can better grow and flourish. These young people may be displaced, but they have a place in sport and on a team.”