At the Lebanese International University campus in northern Lebanon, a group of 400 teenage boys and girls – Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese – are gathered on a field, smiling and joking with one another.
In the middle of Lebanon’s refugee crisis, this is a rare sight.
Most refugee children in Lebanon have been out of school for several years. It’s currently estimated that some 80 percent of Syrian children in the country are unable to attend school. Instead, they spend their days working long hours in convenience stores and restaurants, or peddling roses and chewing gum on the streets. They want to learn and play, but they can’t afford the bus to school or have to work when classes are typically held.
In these critical years of their lives, many youths in Lebanon are missing out on regular socialization activities. Most have been victims of poverty and violence. And all are aware of the tensions between their respective communities: Who is receiving the most aid? Who’s taking up most of the jobs? Who’s to blame?
Sports & New Uniforms Unite Youth in Nahr El Bared
But today is different. There’s excitement in the air. It’s Anera’s Open Sports Day event for the youth of Nahr El Bared Palestinian refugee camp and their peers in surrounding communities. Children and teens are running around the field, passing soccer balls. They wear brand new blue, gray and red sports jerseys.
Ziad Ahmad, 17, is a member of the Wahdeh Soccer Club, an Anera partner in Nahr El Bared. Showing off his new jersey, he says “The uniform makes me feel like I’m part of a team. It also makes me feel confident, like a real soccer player.”
An estimated 80% of Syrian youth are unable to attend school.
Indeed, the teams do look professional with their new uniforms and soccer gear, which Anera has delivered thanks to a donation from Reach Out to Asia (ROTA). In total, 1,400 sets of sports gear and uniforms were distributed to teams and clubs in different regions and camps throughout the country, benefiting 2,000 children. The Wahdeh Soccer Club was thrilled to be a recipient.
Wahdeh Coach Khalil Monsour says it has helped his team bond.
“A sports jersey may not mean much to others,” he explains. “But for these children, who come from fragmented communities and are constantly faced with challenges, it helps them create a sense of belonging and community.”
Refugee Youth Development: Filling in the Gaps
This isn’t the first time that Anera’s program implementers in Lebanon have used sports to reach at-risk youth. Since 2010, Anera has been working with organizations like Reach Out to Asia and USAID’s Office of Transitional Assistance to ease tensions and provide safe-havens for young people through sports.
Anera’s first youth development project with Reach Out to Asia in 2010 helped build the foundation for a robust non-formal education program that includes a large sports component.
Presently, Anera’s sports program in Lebanon renovates playing fields in camps and tent settlements, helps sports clubs build capacity for practices and tournaments, hosts workshops and open days, and trains community leaders and coaches to sustain the programs. By stressing the importance of gender inclusion, Anera also makes sure that girls have the chance to play.
The approach seems to be working. Coach Mansour, the Wahdeh Sports Club soccer coach, describes the changes in his team since they’ve become part of Anera’s program. “There is much more cohesion, commitment and team spirit. I can see my team coming together and working together as one, unified unit.”