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Omran's story: Soccer is a comfort from home

Jordan, Syria, August 27, 2013

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  • Omran, his father Hasan and little sister Naba sit on the "garden patio" they made between their caravans to recreate a little bit of home. The 10-year-old likes to help his father with the odd construction jobs he finds. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Omran (right) loves playing soccer with his friends because it reminds him of home. Mercy Corps' sports program helps kids find focus and relief after trauma. We will soon start a league in the Zaatari camp. Photo: Sumaya/Agha
  • Omran had a hard time at the camp's school, but has made friends at Mercy Corps activity tent building sandcastles. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • The fiery boy has been dealing with a lot of anger after being forced to leave his home. Omran's soccer coach says the sport is helping him better manage his emotions. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps

Within Syrian culture the garden or veranda are central to socializing and spending time with family. In a refugee camp, in the middle of the desert, you’d think maintaining that tradition would be impossible.

But last Wednesday, I found myself enjoying a morning drinking Turkish coffee and chatting with 10-year-old Omran and his extended family in their “garden patio” in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.

Omran’s extended family is lucky to have three caravans among them, making up the frame of their interior garden patio. Despite having to flee the violence in Syria, they’ve been able to create a touch of home here.

Being able to play soccer with other youths has also given Omran a sense of home.

“After leaving Syria my life changed,” he told me. “I miss Syria and my home. I miss school and playing with my friends, but I’m enjoying staying here because of playing. That’s the only thing that relieves me. I play soccer everyday and a lot of games with my friends like chasing and hiding.”

Sports program provides focus and relief after upheaval

Omran participates in Mercy Corps’ soccer program. He plays the attack position — “the only position” this fiery young fellow is interested in.

Using soccer to help children find focus and relief after devastating events is something Mercy Corps has done in many places around the world, including Haiti, Somalia and CAR. The program teaches children discipline and sportsmanship, giving them opportunity to spend time with and make new friends.

Mercy Corps recently completed a multipurpose outdoor sports facility in the camp, adding basketball to the soccer and volleyball programs. In a city comprised of tents and caravans, the designated children’s space gives them a safe space to be active, express themselves, have fun and learn.

Q+A: How our work helps children heal from trauma

We’re also developing a more formal sports league for kids to play throughout the camp.

Sports and play are often the only outlet children have in the camp. Except for a small number of children who are attending educational programs to catch-up on lost time in the classroom, the camps 60,000-plus youngsters are out of school for the summer. And many of those kids, including Omran, were not attending class even before the summer began.

Omran’s reason for not attending is similar to many other children I’ve spoken with: “School is better in Syria, I don’t like school here, it’s boring.”

He and his family are hoping to go back to Syria, that their time in Jordan is only temporary, so they give their three school-age children a break from school in this unforeseen, incomprehensible circumstance. I encouraged Omran’s parents to send their kids to school now, because while it may not be ideal, it will difficult for them to catch up later.

Anger channeled into activity

“I’m sensitive and can get upset easily. Since we moved here I’m angry a lot — I’m not comfortable, I’m choking from the hot weather, and it’s not as fun as it is in Syria. I’m not happy,” this rather self-aware 10-year-old told me.

The camp is obviously stifling for Omran — understandably so. The heat cannot be helping the situation as he said, “I miss shade, There’s shade here, but it’s like a microwave.”

“You said that playing soccer and playing with your friends makes you happy, though,” I recalled.

“Yes, playing makes me happy.”

Indeed, Khalid, who is Omran’s soccer coach and was also his neighbor in their war-scarred hometown of Dara’a, told me, “Omran has been very angry since the war began, he’s seen too much. Playing soccer everyday, having a team, is helping him through. He’s becoming less angry.”

Omran also finds happiness going to work with his father, Hasan. He is fortunate to occasionally have work in his trade, construction.

“In Syria I used to work with my father in construction, and I loved it,” Omran excitedly exlained. “I want to go back to Syria and work with my dad and do the things I love.” He later told me that he gets older he wants to “… work in construction like my dad.”

I asked him what else he misses about home, “I miss swimming. I played soccer with my cousins and friends in the field behind our house. I miss my house and the graves of my two brothers the most.”

It is not possible to replace everything in his new home, but Omran has his loving family surrounding him, a soccer coach who supports him, and friends to play with.

How you can help

  • Learn more about how we're protecting Syria's children. Share Omran's story and others to raise awareness and support for a generation that needs our help to recover.

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