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In UN Refugee Camps, Sports Soothe Trauma for Children


Somali Refugees in Kenya
Children race each other in a game they call “marathon” outside the new arrivals section of the refugee camp in Dadaab in Kenya. Continuing violence in Somalia has led to more and more Somalis seeking refuge across the border in Kenya, but the UN refugee agency is struggling to cope with the thousands of new arrivals at the camps. UNHCR/E. Hockstein 

“Sport is the only area of human existence that has achieved universal law,” said Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee when he announced that elite athletes who were refugees could compete in the 2016 Olympics under that flag.

“Regardless of where in the world we practice sport, the rules are the same and apply to everyone,” he said last fall at the United Nations General Assembly. “They are based on our shared values.”

Part of an ambitious agenda to reach and educate children, sports are playing an ever-greater role in the work of the UN and other international bodies to bring positive value to children’s lives, especially for the growing number of youths living in refugee camps around the world.

Sports can help promote favorable changes for children displaced from their homes because of war or other upheaval.

In a break with tradition, sports are also being offered more to girls in refugee camps and not only to boys, as relief agencies realize the therapeutic value of active play for everyone. Sports are now being used to help keep girls in school in the camps and out of potential forced early marriages.

Almost 7,000 miles away, while Bach was addressing the UN in New York City, children in Al Riyadh camp in western Sudan were playing soccer. Across a field of packed earth, bleached to the color of sand by the sun, their ball, held together by legions of tape and dedication, spun back and forth between white-painted boundaries.

In the Zaatari refugee camp outside Mafraq, Jordan, Mohammed al Krad was using both contact and purely aerobic sports to provide traumatized children with physical outlets. Al Krad, the Syrian national wrestling and national team coach, uses a Unicef-created adolescent friendly space to reach boys and girls who have suffered trauma because of the Syrian civil war. With equipment supplied through the Mercy Corps charity, al Krad organizes wrestling and boxing programs for boys and aerobics for girls, from the ages of 12 to 24.

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“Mohammed’s coaching these kids builds the children’s self-confidence, respect for the community and their parents,” Frank Roni, an emergency child protection specialist for Unicef, said during a phone interview from Jordan.

“We’ve seen huge achievements by linking activities at the child center and school,” said Coach Mohammed, as the children call al Krad. He has developed the program in the Zaatari camp on his own but works with Unicef and partner organizations like Mercy Corps, Save the Children and CARE to ensure what the UN terms the “psychosocial well-being” of his athletes.

As Roni said: “The more we can provide comprehensive psychosocial care and outlets, the more we can reduce the negative effects of trauma on children. Collaborative games build trust and good relationships, good communication between children themselves.”

The possibility of an elite athlete from a refugee camp, including one born there, competing in the Olympics is technically viable, as the average length of time a person may end up living in a camp is 7 to 20 years. Some camps have existed since 1948, home to generations of people displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Run by the UN’s Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (Unrwa), these long-running camps are now home to more than five million people. Others camps, like Zaatari, are run separately by the UN refugee agency. Since opening in July 2012, a year into the Syrian civil war, Zaatari has become the fourth-largest city in Jordan, home to almost 100,000 people.

The Olympic possibility has not faded since Bach’s announcement last fall. “We are hopeful that this [Olympic] initiative will bring hope to refugee athletes who long to go back to training and compete at the Olympic Games,” Mark Adams, spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, wrote by email from Lausanne, Switzerland.

“We also hope that this will be a symbol of hope for all refugees around the world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of the crisis.”

Conflict, natural disasters and humanitarian crises are unselective in whom they uproot. Refugees can be doctors, athletes, teachers, businesspeople and children; most especially, children. According to the UN, more than 50 percent of the 60-million-plus refugees and displaced people worldwide are children. Many of them have lost a parent, if not both. In Beddawi, an Unrwa camp in Lebanon, more than 45 percent of the population is under 18 years old.

In Zaatari, more than 55 percent of its residents are under 18 years old — more than 44,000 children. The UN refugee agency estimates that 13 children are born everyday in the camp. Besides school, it is sports that can help refugee children fill up their long, idle days.

“Sport helps kids become kids again,” said Claude Marshall, a consultant to the UN refugee agency who finds private financing specifically for sports programs. The refugee agency budget is roughly $3 billion, addressing the immediate needs of the world’s displaced people and refugees who have registered with the UN. That budget is rarely met, and there is no line item for sports or recreation in it.

Marshall has close emotional ties to refugees and their status; his parents brought their family from Heidelberg, Germany, where he was born in 1932, to the United States to escape persecution right before World War II. Marshall grew up in New York State, and after a successful career, he retired as the European vice president for a global marketing and advertising firm.

“These kids have lost their childhood; in many respects, sports allows them to regain a piece of that childhood,” Marshall said in a phone interview. “There is nothing I can think of that costs less and does so much for a small amount of money, for young people.”

In fact, “kids will play on anything,” said Heather Barnabe, the manager of program operations at Right to Play, a nongovernment organization that uses proprietary game methodology to work with the world’s most vulnerable children, teaching life skills and leadership, addressing health issues and even peace-building.

“At Zaatari — when you consider the topography of Jordan, rocky, dusty and sandy, it doesn’t lend itself to play space — lots of organizations are really trying to create these spaces for children,” Barnabe said during a phone conversation from Toronto, where Right to Play is based. “Even at the distribution center, things are designed for children to enjoy while their parents are figuring out what they’re going to eat that day.”

Right to Play’s curriculum includes lessons for the adults to help them guide the children in playing and learning.

Marshall’s sports programs also entwine learning. Soccer matches are combined with lectures, covering anything from basic health to knowledge of how to avoid cycles of gender-based violence. Education in most camps ends at secondary, or middle, school. This leaves tweens and teens with lots of free time.

Organized sports combined with indirect education sessions lower the risks and vulnerabilities that children are exposed to in the camps. Like the UN refugee agency and the programs championed by Marshall, Unicef sees the importance of sports in providing more than one outlet for children.

Because the camps are often located in countries where certain societal norms restrict the behavior of girls and boys, children play at different times. According to Roni of Unicef, in Zaatari girls attend school in the morning, while boys attend in the afternoon. While one group is in school, the other has access to recreation centers and fields.

Sports and recreation counter some of the dangers girls face in camps. They are most likely to have been exposed to different traumas, potentially more sexually based in nature, than boys. Girls are more likely to face societal pressures to leave school and assume adult responsibilities sooner than boys, including being forced into early marriages, a rising phenomenon among the Syrian refugee communities throughout the region.

Through sports, girls improve their self-esteem and learn how to counter the anger and anxiety brought on by the traumas that have displaced them.

“We wanted to target the vulnerable age group of girls, girls who are kept from being able to go to school or vulnerable to be married early inside the camp,” Roni said. Extra care, such as privacy curtains drawn around the areas where girls play in the Unicef child-friendly space, allows them to exercise unhampered by the layers of clothing traditionally demanded in a co-ed setting.

Early marriages are considered a way to protect girls from rape and other sexually predator violations in the camps — and to help the girl’s family financially. In Zaatari, many child brides marry Jordanians, enabling a more permanent residency in the country. Unicef and others have documented that the rate of Syrian girls marrying before age 18 in Jordan is continuously upward, from 25 percent in 2013 to 32 percent in 2014. Almost half of the brides marry a Jordanian, and slightly more than a third marry men at least a decade older.

Not only do few of the child brides finish schooling, they are more likely to be abused or suffer complicated pregnancies and births, Unicef said. Media reports have documented girls who were abandoned within a year of their marriage, some forced into domestic slavery or prostitution.

“With girls, we try and get them on a team as an inducement to stay in school,” Marshall, the UN consultant, said. “If you’re on a volleyball team, you can’t play unless you’re in school. The girls want to stay in school, they want to play.”

Volleyball, soccer and wrestling are the biggest sports in the camps, both Roni and Marshall said.

Marshall recounted an experience, in the Kakuma camp in Kenya, home to displaced South Sudanese. The International Olympic Committee, a large partner in helping to bring sports to refugee children, had created a basketball court and field for play, as well as provided accessories for various sports. Girls in the camp had been given more sedate pursuits, like sewing and knitting. A camp elder, a woman named Ms. Gladys, had called Marshall over to observe the girls.

“Ms. Gladys asked me, ‘What do you hear, Marshall?’ I didn’t hear anything but needles hitting needles,” Marshall said, describing a small hut in which a dozen girls, 10 to 14 years old, sat silently knitting, crocheting and sewing.

Ms. Gladys told Marshall: “Do you know why they’re not talking? In doing this sewing that you’ve supplied, they sit there quietly and think about every horror they’ve gone through. And if you ask them what they went through, you couldn’t stand it.”

Now, whenever possible, girls are encouraged to play and to lead as much as boys.

Some of the organizations partnering with the UN refugee agency to provide sports play and regain a piece of lost childhood include the European Football League and the International Volleyball Federation. In more established camps, organizations like Right to Play help to build field houses and create environments that allow for long-term opportunities to play while training local leaders to keep programs operational. These settings occur in some of the worst tracts of land a country can offer.

In newer camps spawned by the outpouring of Syrian refugees, like Zaatari, fields are leveled for play and leagues established as much as possible. Other opportunities to include the host community in the activities can cultivate a more stable social understanding and the beginnings of a hybrid community. Many host communities are not typically wealthy, and a large influx of refugees adds more pressures.

As Barnabe of Right to Play noted, “What brings people together better than sport and play?”

Sports allow children to regain a sense of trust in their surroundings and keep close to what they had lost before they became refugees. “I could be in a camp in Africa, in Asia or Middle East, kids always ask me who my football team is,” Barnabe said. “I’m always kind of blown away by how much they love sports, follow sports and engage in sports. There’s something innate in sports that people identify with.”

Sports increasingly offer a chance to reach children throughout the world, helping them to excel in unstable environments. But the odds against a child from a refugee camp becoming an elite athlete are high.

The average caloric intake available in a camp is 1,500 daily; elite athletes diets range from 3,000 to 5,000 calories daily and up to 12,000 during intense periods like the Olympics.

Other problems crop up, like what can an athlete do after the Olympics? Return to life in the camp? Paths exist for athletes, even child athletes, who show promise to connect with schools and universities, thus opening doors for young refugees who wouldn’t normally have access to such luxuries. Yet those chances can be slim.

In 2003, John Chuol arrived in Kenya’s Kakuma camp by himself at age 10 from South Sudan. Basketball has been his route to a proper education since then. Chuol, ranked as one of Kenya’s best players, is deemed National Basketball Association quality and plays for the University of Nairobi. He recently told Xinhua, the Chinese news outlet, that he has resisted signing up to play for professional teams in the Kenya Basketball League to avoid jeopardizing his studies.

“I want to complete my studies and go back to South Sudan so that I can help others the way I was helped,” Chuol said. “The country really needs us.”


Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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