Life for most Syrian children is a pale, unhappy imitation of their pre-civil war existence.
Where once they went to school and played with their friends, now they must grapple with government barrel bombs and infighting among religious extremists.
Syrian refugee kids who’ve fled into exile in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are, in some ways, among the lucky ones: they’re largely safe from the relentless killing, but the grinding uncertainty of displacement and haunting memories of the 140,000 slain so far have exacted a grueling toll on their impressionable young minds.
“The kids are unruly, but the adults have rejected all rules, and so they’re just reflecting what they see at home” said Kilian Kleinschmitt, the German UN official who administers Jordan’s Zaatari camp.
Instilling discipline is a tough task when 58 percent of Zaatari’s 100,000 or so inhabitants are under 18, and the 20 percent under five have barely known peace in their short lives.
Even trickier, though, is rekindling a collective spirit, and “getting people doing something together that’s not fighting together,” said Kleinschmitt.
International soccer officials and some camp residents see sport as the ticket to restoring a veneer of normality for Zaatari’s mentally bruised and blooded youth.
And it looks like they’re on to something.
“Many kids used to watch football games in their homes, so bringing football back is like bringing home back,” said Qassem Ibrahim Al-Majaresh, a football coach who previously played professionally back in Syria.
Until recently, however, few moves had been made to bring Syrian girls into the sporting fold.
This was no fleeting mistake.
Zaatari football has made such an impression that Syrian refugees living outside the camp occasionally turn up and lobby to take part.
The majority of Zaatari’s residents hail from the poor, conservative Dera’a region, which witnessed the first fateful shots of the Syrian revolution almost three years ago to the day.
Girls were never encouraged to play sport there, while the few female sporting organizations and limited funds available outside the major cities meant most had to content themselves with occasional basketball contests.
Traditional cultural attitudes still carry considerable sway within the camp, despite women making up 55 percent of its population.
“I was shouted at for wanting to watch boys play sport,” said Bdour Al-Majaresh, a onetime Karate instructor and bubbly young football coach with an infectious laugh, who has done much to introduce girls to the game since fleeing Damascus last year.
Her uncles disapprove of her work, but the real challenge lies in persuading parents to allow their daughters to participate.
“Many, many, many girls would like to play football, but they are not allowed,” said Bdour, who noted that 42 girls promptly pitched up to a training session when a field was closed and walled off to obscure male spectators’ viewing.
The girls’ lack of familiarity with football has made for some amusing scenes.
“It was easier to train the boys in the beginning because they knew what they were doing with the ball,” Bdour said.
Several months of training later, and most of her young charges have finally got to grips with football’s quirks—“they know you can’t pick it up now,” Bdour giggled—but refugee camp life poses its own particular problems.
Like stolen football fields.
“We tried to put down an artificial pitch, but it was cut up and moved inside people’s tents, so now the only thing we can do is gravel,” said Reema Asendar of the Asian Football Development Project (AFPD), whose funding and expertise launched the football program and sustained it through a rough early patch marred by fighting among male players.
A recent bout of unseasonably cold and wet weather has turned much of the camp’s existing dirt playing turf into an impassable bog and led to cancellation of a much-anticipated two-day tournament.
The young female ‘Flame of Syria’ team can scarcely conceal their disappointment at the missed opportunity to showcase their new skills.
“When’s the next one?” the gaggle of young headscarf-wearing footballers clustered around a propane-fired heater eagerly demand of Bdour.
They’re bored without football, which provides an escape from a tedious camp routine broken only by the school hours between 8am-11:30am.
“What did you do before you played football?” I asked. “Nothing,” they chorused.
They’re slightly more divided when it comes to designating their team’s star player, but after a brief, whispered discussion they settle on Sarah, Bdour’s much younger sister, and a “great defender.”
A number of these girls experienced traumatic spectacles in their flight from Syria, and “they don’t get to laugh much,” according to coach Qassem, but they’re still fortunate to have the time and freedom to play football.
Some children are orphans and must work to support their younger siblings, while others are responsible for the welfare of wounded or decrepit older relatives.
Four players failed to show up for a camp football tournament in February, and when their coach tracked them down, the boys’ father told him: “sport is doing nothing for my kids, because they need to work.”
Coaches have, nevertheless, found Zaatari a somewhat more accommodating sporting environment than their authoritarian homeland.
“In Syria, it is the case that it isn’t the best players, but the most connected players who get picked,” coach Qassem said.
“In Syria, if you choose the wrong player, you could get fired, but here I have the freedom to choose the players without outside pressures,” he added, as we chatted inside a cushioned family caravan sheltered from the persistent rain.
There are still significant issues to be ironed out.
Many footballers—particularly girls—lack proper sports kit and football boots and must play in their regular clothing, which is utterly ill-suited to the rough, gritty playing surfaces.
But glimmers of positivity are an infrequent luxury amid the doom and gloom, and the last tournament displayed so much talent that coach Qassem’s dream of piecing together a refugee team to compete in the Jordanian Premier League might prove to be more than a distant pipedream.
There are plans afoot now to kickstart a local league, while Zaatari football has made such an impression that Syrian refugees living outside the camp occasionally turn up and lobby to take part.
Bdour, for one, is convinced the camp has hit upon a winning formula.
“Fights and violence were common in the beginning, but things are much better now,” she said, recounting a January match when a losing male team began bombarding the celebrating winners with rocks.
“Day by day, I feel the violence is fading way and the children are becoming more receptive.”
“This,” she says definitively, “is from sport.”
Elsewhere in Jordan, other organizations have experienced similar football-related success.
Pennsylvania-based Spirit of Soccer uses coaching clinics and tournaments to spread mine risk awareness among Syrian children likely to return to ordinance-heavy regions of their country.
Some 7,500 children have thus far passed through the program, whose mixed Syrian and Jordanian staff works to temper growing tensions between refugees and Jordanians irate at the overburdening of local services.
It’s all part and parcel of rebuilding a badly broken society through sport, Kleinschmitt said, as faint wisps of black smoke wafted menacingly skyward from Syria just to the camp’s north.
“It’s not just about keeping people alive through exile. It’s about giving them something they can return with,” he said.