Serene Assir, AFP
Last updated: 6 September, 2012

Star treatment for young refugee footballers in Lebanon

Her life in an overcrowded Palestinian refugee camp is beset by street fights, power cuts and grinding poverty, but for a few days this week 11-year-old Rayan is enjoying star treatment — on the football pitch with a Manchester City academy coach.

“When I play football, I forget all about my problems,” Rayan says with a smile before hitting the dusty pitch on the outskirts of Beirut where Alan Dixon of the Manchester City Football Academy is running training sessions.

Rayan is one of some 200 footballers aged between six and 17 attending the four-day camp Dixon is hosting for Palestinian and Lebanese children, who are not only learning new techniques in the world’s favourite sport but are relishing a rare chance to have some fun.

“In Burj al-Barajneh camp, there are many streetfights, and electricity gets cut off all the time,” says Rayan.

Some 280,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency in Lebanon (UNRWA), and most grow up living in one of 12 official camps and 42 gatherings scattered across the country.

For many of those living in the squalid camps and gatherings life is a daily struggle, and for children, there is barely space to play.

But those are not Rayan’s only problems. “Some people say us girls shouldn’t be playing football at all. But we don’t care,” she says, adding that football helps her stop thinking about problems and to focus on her passion.

And even if some people in the community tell them not to play with Lebanese children, they won’t listen. “Football is for everyone. That’s the thing I love the most,” says Rayan.

Under the beating sun, boys and girls work in groups on special exercises designed to improve their dribbling and passing skills, before they go on to play a match.

They are also taught to hold their heads up high while playing so they can keep an eye on the field, and to think and communicate quickly while playing.

“What has impressed me is that I’ve seen some really good football over the past few days,” says Dixon, a former Oldham Athletic FC defender, who believes the children are learning much more than only new football techniques.

“You learn a lot of life skills through football,” says Dixon. “You are part of a team, and you have to deal with many different people. You need to communicate.”

Dixon also believes football helps children develop a sense of trust, which is often lacking in those growing up in marginal, stressful situations.

“Palestine refugees in Lebanon do not enjoy several basic human rights,” according to UNRWA, which has teamed up with Manchester City for the football training.

Systematically marginalised in the small Mediterranean country, Palestinians “experience great hardship and poverty in their daily lives,” says the agency in a statement on its website.

“The camps force stress on people, many of who live in overcrowded houses,” says Hoda El Turk, communication officer for UNRWA. “With no spaces for recreational activity, children have no way to deal with the stress of their environment.”

Guy al-Haj, a Lebanese player who coaches the children alongside Dixon, says the children play well partly because of the difficulties they face in their daily lives.

“They have no fear, they play hard, they throw themselves on the ground, and do whatever it takes to improve,” he says. “Think about it. Most professional football stars come from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Though the activity lasts just a few days, for the children it is “a dream come true,” says Iman Omaiss, mother of three young footballers aged 14, 12 and 10, who arrive at the field dressed in bright yellow Brazil t-shirts.

Omaiss and her family are Lebanese although most of the children taking part are of Palestinian background.

“I’ve been looking forward to this training for months,” says her 12-year-old son Hussein. “We’ve learned how to play better and we’ve had fun, but also how to accept defeat. I can’t wait until school starts now, so I can tell my friends.”

Older teenagers have also joined the sessions, getting relief from the hard work they do in order to survive in expensive Lebanon.

“I left school a couple of years ago,” says 17-year-old Ibrahim, who sports a Real Madrid T-shirt and who plays in flip-flops — as do some of the others attending the training.

“I work in an aluminium factory now, and when I get home from work, I’m exhausted,” says Ibrahim, who looks strikingly similar to Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, and is from Burj al-Barajneh.

Despite his weariness, he heads out immediately to play football, which for he and his friends is an escape from a daily routine of work and stress.

“I don’t look for fights, but sometimes, you get dragged in,” says Ibrahim. “Personally, I’d rather not fight at all. I’d rather just play.”