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The world game transforming a girl’s world

25 July 2023, Impact of Our Work

A life marred by conflict and displacement threatened to overwhelm Jana – until she discovered soccer

On a patch of artificial grass in a far-flung corner of the Za’atari refugee camp, 13-year-old Jana* is bouncing up and down on her toes. She’s positioned in goal on a makeshift soccer pitch, watching intently as the ball passes from girl to girl ahead of her, her smile almost as wide as the goal she is guarding. 

This scene was unimaginable just a few months ago. For Jana, growing up in Za’atari, the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, hasn’t been easy. 

Set on a dusty, desolate plain in northern Jordan, Jana’s home is freezing in winter and oppressively hot in summer. Ragged tents and flimsy huts provide barely adequate shelter for over 80,000 men, women and children crammed into a compound they share with packs of stray dogs. 

Jana’s mother, Amari* explains how the young family came to live in such a place.  “We came to Za’atari in 2014, fleeing from Syria…there were bombs which injured my husband and hit our house, so we decided to flee and come to Jordan.”

“In Syria the children were crying all the time, they heard the violence and sensed people were dying around us, so we left. It’s a real story, we lived it, so we want to share it.” 

However, Amiri maintains a stoic optimism, explaining, “So life here, I mean, I won’t hide, there are some difficulties, we suffered a lot… (but) there is no comparison between being under war, destruction, attack. And living here in Jordan is so safe, much safer than Syria.” 

Trauma takes a heavy toll on a young girl

Despite the relative safety of Za’atari, the family’s traumatic flight from Syria to Jordan took a heavy toll on Jana. Amari says her daughter, “was isolated, introverted…she didn’t have friends, she didn’t have anyone. She was bullied at school…this made her lose her confidence, so she got isolated, stayed home.” Jana’s social anxiety escalated after she was attacked by stray dogs on her way to school.

Desperately worried about her daughter, Amari heard from a neighbour about the ‘Coaching for Life’ program run by Save the Children. The program gives girls in the camp an opportunity to play soccer and develop life skills along the way. Amari enrolled Jana the next day.  

Learning to love life again, while learning to play soccer 

“At the beginning…she didn’t want to go”, says Amari, “the first session was hard. She was gone for two hours, and I was worryingly waiting for her. I thought she wouldn’t like it and she would get bored and come home…I was surprised that she came home happy and delighted, her laugh was unbelievable. I asked her what happened at the club? Did you like it? She said yes mum I liked the club a lot. I liked the teachers, I liked the soccer game, she liked it a lot.” 

The changes that happened to my daughter Jana…you can’t imagine. This program, ‘Coaching for Life’, it changed Jana 180 degrees, it changed my daughter.

Amari, Jana’s mother

For Jana the program has been a revelation and a liberation. “When I play soccer, I feel happiness…I feel active, full of energy and life,” she says. “I use my bike to visit the Save the Children ‘Coaching for Life’ centre. I live to ride my bike. I play soccer once a week. I’m waiting for this day to come every week.”

Jana rides her bike to visit the ‘Coaching for Life’ centre, whatever the weather.

“I learned many things from soccer,” Jana continues, “in the past I had no friends, now I have a lot of friends, this is one of my favourite things about the program…When it is cold, I go. If the weather is hot, I go. I tolerate the challenges. I ride my bike, and go, the weather might be stormy, but I still go.”

I think she started to love life, like she has been dead, like a body with no soul, and suddenly she started to love life, to love people.

Amari on how soccer transformed her daughter’s life

Soccer has opened up a new life of friends, physical fun and life skills for Jana.

The power of sport to improve the emotional wellbeing of children 

In 2018, The Arsenal Foundation and Save the Children combined their expertise to design and implement ‘Coaching for Life’. The program uses the power of soccer to improve the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of children. Save the Children launched the program in Za’atari Refugee Camp with a focus on supporting children like Jana and their families who have been affected by the Syrian war. 

In the five years ‘Coaching for Life’ has been operating, the program has helped tackle gender stereotypes, giving girls equal opportunities play soccer, and proving how sport can play a crucial role in improving children’s mental health and wellbeing. 

Thanks to our supporters, ‘Coaching for Life’ has helped over 3,200 children like Jana living in Za’atari refugee camp
to have a brighter future.

Back on the soccer pitch, this week’s ‘Coaching for Life’ session has come to an end. Jana is laughing and careening around, finding it hard to contain her sheer joy of the game. “When I play soccer” she exclaims, “I feel happiness, vitality and optimism.” 

*Names have been changed to protect identities. 

Photos: Charlie Forgham-Bailey / Save the Children.

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