A Sporting Chance for a Young Palestinian Refugee in Lebanon
Soccer for 13-year-old Abdel Raheem Ali Jumaa – or Heemo as his friends call him – has become a passion and perhaps his opportunity for a better life beyond the confines of the refugee camp where he lives in northern Lebanon. The Olympics made him see that possibility is real.
Opportunities for youth In the Palestinian refugee camp are slim. Living conditions in Nahr El Bared refugee camp are difficult. Job prospects are few. But Heemo has found opportunity through his love of soccer.
Sparked by his older brothers’ passion for the sport, Heemo began playing soccer when he was seven. With encouragement from his father, he joined a local soccer club at Beit Atfal Assumoud, a local community organization and ANERA partner.
Sports programs provide a sense of accomplishment and escape in Palestinian refugee camps.
Heemo insists his life would be empty without soccer, “You can’t take away soccer. It is my hobby…I feel happy when I am playing.”
Like many youth in Palestinian camps, Heemo has turned to soccer as an activity for fun and an outlet for his frustrations. Dreams of a career in soccer open wide when he watches his favorite players move the ball down the field. He can even imagine scoring a goal against the famous Spanish goalie Iker Casillas.
“I want to play professionally when I grow up.” His favorite player and inspiration is Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
Heemo’s soccer dreams bring a glimmer of hope amid poor job prospects for Palestinian refugees. Restrictions on access to many professions leave mostly menial job openings. Only 37% of working age Palestinians are employed, mostly in the agriculture and service industries.
Heemo began his soccer career playing in dilapidated streets and trash-strewn alleyways of the refugee camp. Nahr El Bared was set up in 1948 to provide temporary shelter for Palestinian refugees. A conflict in 2007 destroyed most of the camp and the Lebanese army has temporarily taken over the only large playing field for security reasons. ANERA has rehabilitated another field near Heemo’s home, so he and his friends still can play.
“When I play soccer, I feel a clean breath of air in my heart,” Heemo responds while describing the emotions soccer stirs within him. “Each time I feel sad, bored or stressed out, I go to play soccer… I feel calmer. Soccer taught me to hold myself together, become calmer and less stressed…It taught me respect and teamwork.”
A professional career is still a few years away but soccer already has changed his life. This past year, he was chosen as one of the top players in Lebanon’s refugee camps to travel with a team from the Palestinian Soccer Union-Lebanon Branch to Norway to compete in an international soccer tournament. Travel abroad is extremely difficult for Palestinian refugees because of their stateless status so Heemo seized the opportunity to its fullest.
Heemo scored 24 goals in six games. His spectacular performance won him the Top Scorer Award for the tournament. He returned home to proudly show off his trophy. “When I went to Norway, I felt the world changed. Everything was well organized. Life there is nicer.”
During the London 2012 Olympics, Heemo wore his #10 jersey and was glued to the TV screen watching the soccer matches. The refugee camp boundaries may confine him physically, but soccer lets him see beyond the end zone to his next goal.