There isn’t much space for sports in Beddawi refugee camp in northern Lebanon. “It’s not safe for the kids to hang out in the streets and there isn’t anything to do in the camp,” explains Abu Atef (Yahya Sweidan), father of four and soccer enthusiast.
Abu Atef is especially concerned about safe play areas for kids as part of his work as a vocational trainer at the community-based organization the National Institute of Social Care and Vocational Training. “When my kids are playing in Palestine soccer field, my mind is at peace. And I know that they are safe. This is of utmost importance.”
A few months ago the refugee camp’s soccer field was no more than an abandoned field marked by littering and vandalism.
With funding from Reach Out to Asia (ROTA), ANERA completely renovated the soccer field, from the playing field and spectator stands to the recreation and meeting rooms in the basement. And additional space was created as a playground for the younger kids too. “The changes are amazing!” exclaimed Abu Atef, “The field is 100 times better than it used to be.”
Creating safe space for fun
Soccer is a very popular sport in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps. Beddawi camp, with 16,500 residents, has no fewer than nine soccer clubs, reaching out to more than 1,000 players. But, most of the teams had no place to play.
The soccer field has not really been operating fully since it was built in 2007. There was hardly any time for teams to train on the field,usually only after they finished work or school and before the sun went down.
ANERA installed a professional lighting system on the field to extend hours for training after dark, and ease the tensions between clubs over their time on the field. Girls get to play soccer too.
The sports rooms under the stadium were rehabilitated and refurnished. Each team now has its own office and changing rooms. “There are nine teams in Beddawi and only seven days in the week so some teams just did not get to play...We used to change on the field before matches,” remembers Abu Atef. “It is much more professional now.”
New fencing around the field helps keep out garbage and vandals. During the first match organized on the rehabilitated playing field, one the players echoed his teammates joy: “This is the first time spectators don’t just rush onto the field in the middle of a game.” Now, he says everyone feels like they’re playing in a real match. And, he gave a big sigh of relief: “For the first time, the field doesn’t flood when it rains because ANERA leveled the ground.”
Beddawi residents are proud too: “There isn’t a more beautiful playing field in all of North Lebanon,” exclaims Abu Atef. “This is the only field of this size that is not falling apart or has not been requisitioned by the army, like the one in Tripoli.”
Since the start of the project, a key objective has been to involve the local community and infuse a spirit of cooperation among the soccer clubs to overcome their social and sectarian rivalries. It took long hours of work and many meetings to set priorities and responsibilities but all the clubs now are working together and have set up a formal committee to cooperate in the supervision and maintenance of the soccer facility.
ANERA program manager Jackline Atwi explains, “Supporting a federation of sport clubs to achieve joint decisions was essential to giving the clubs a sense of ownership, and ensuring the soccer field’s sustainability.”
Mustafa Abu Harb, has been appointed president of Beddawi Sports Committee. “Before this project, the clubs were always in conflict,” he remembers. He says the creation of the committee and agreement on play schedules is already a great achievement.
Boys and girls in the camp have flocked to the new facility, the only open, clean area in the camp to enjoy sports. They come after school to play soccer or learn table tennis in the basement recreation room that local associations also use for events. Team coaches also are using sports to help teach life skills and to provide an escape from the difficult economic and political conditions that children endure in the camps.
Committee president Mustafa Abu Harb says the stands are filled with spectators of all ages for every match. He sees Palestine soccer field as something to be cherished by Beddawi residents. “This has brought a great team spirit to the whole camp.”
In other sports-related activities, ANERA has implemented a training program for coaches and provided soccer balls and sports equipment to other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Sports is part of ANERA’s vocational model and the curriculum developed for remedial classes. In some of the most overcrowded camps, ANERA has also managed to carve out small playgrounds for children and their families.