The Za’atari refugee camp is not the world’s most obvious location for a football league. Covering more than 5 square kilometres of desert land in Jordan, the site is built from corrugated iron shelters that do not receive running water and often no electricity. With temperatures that fluctuate between 45 degrees Celsius in the summer and zero in the winter, conditions are difficult for its 80,000 inhabitants.
But in spite of these surroundings, the effect of organised sport is being felt.
The colours of Spanish football can now be seen across Za’atari, the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, thanks to the collaboration of LaLiga, AFDP Global and 33 LaLiga Santander, LaLiga 1l2l3 and Liga Iberdrola teams. For all parties involved, it is a football league unlike any other.
With 50% of Za’atari’s population under the age of 18, the project is particularly aimed at children and to help them overcome the risks that they face. As well as the lack of resources in the camp, lack of motivation and purpose can be particularly damaging to long term development. The LaLiga | Za’atari Social Project for youngsters is designed to create a positive experience through combining football with education.
“It is our moral obligation to help those who were not lucky enough to be born in the same place as us,” said Javier García, one of two LaLiga coaches who are based at the camp. “Mainly the children who are victims of a conflict that has taken everything from them, including part of their childhood.”
A new football league with a difference
Through its sports projects department and its foundation, LaLiga has worked for more than a year with AFDP Global, the international football social enterprise, to conduct football training programmes for hundreds of youngsters. Crucially, the courses focus on both sporting and social skills.
“The programme teaches values like respect, teamwork, fair play and equality,” said Izzat Jandali, the other LaLiga coach at Za’atari. “These values can help boys and girls overcome obstacles in their life. Football is the tool to help us implement the programme.”
Backed by years of research and led by García, who holds qualifications in child psychology and international development as well as his UEFA Pro license, the programme has reached more than 750 children in Za’atari to date. The creation of a football league, available to both male and female players, will add a new sense of fun and community to proceedings.
Each of the 36 league teams has been paired with one of the participating Spanish clubs, which have donated kits, boots and footballs along with other equipment. In addition, LaLiga is running training courses for those keen to help run and manage these competitions, whether as coaches or as referees.
“We are committed to creating a sustainable project and one of the reasons to link each club from LaLiga to a team in Za’atari is to create a strong attachment between them,” explained Jandali.
“After a year of hard work we are able to transmit the philosophy of our competition and the clubs to the neighbourhoods, homes, and streets of Za’atari,” added LaLiga President Javier Tebas, who attended the inauguration of the tournament.
Mindfulness training, points for fair play
Given the extremely trying situations many have been through before arriving at Za’atari, the new competition has been carefully designed to fit this environment.
“Every activity is adapted to the specific context of Za’atari, from the tournaments to the training sessions and courses,” explained García.
For the players, training can involve mental stimulation as much as physical. “The inclusion of yoga and mindfulness techniques and exercises in the training sessions is especially useful,” he said. “These can help control stress and anxiety, increase the ability to concentrate, foster creativity and improve interpersonal relationships.”
During the matches, teams will earn points for fair play as well as for victories and draws, an idea that helps to drive these values home. “We have the duty and the responsibility to teach these boys and girls to compete honestly, to accept defeat and to learn how to win with humility and respect,” García added.
The design of the tournament will continue to evolve with the input of other organisations who are active in Za’atari. “We are involved in the youth task force (YTF), where organisations that work with youngsters share information about activities and training,” explained Jandali.
Having reached this stage of the project, the organisers of the LaLiga Za’atari Social Project are determined to reach as many youngsters as possible. New collaborations and additional leagues will help to achieve this, as will open days and workshops, like the one held to announce the new competition in July. “We will also implement a website where people from Za’atari can get information about the teams, next matches, results, standings and so on,” revealed García.
Success for the project will be measured in many forms, particularly in the experience of the children taking part. But for HRH Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, AFDP Global’s founder and member of the Jordanian royal family, the introduction of competitive sport will be transformative. “Football is more than just a game and we have seen in Za’atari how playing football can truly help children overcome barriers,” he said.
For García, this result is a result that can only be achieved through consistent, on-the-ground presence at Za’atari. “We are not here to take a picture with refugees and go,” he concluded. “We are here to stay and walk with them, helping them every step of the way.”