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Syrian refugee boys snatch a glimpse of normality through football tournament in Sulimaniyah, Iraq

© UNICEF Iraq/2013/Niles
A boy plays in a football tournament hosted at the American University of Sulimaniyah for Syrian refugee boys living in Arbat camp, Iraq. For a few hours, the matches let him and other boys leave refugee life behind.

By Chris Niles

One Saturday afternoon, a group of young boys suit up, jump on a bus and play in a football tournament.

SULIMANIYAH, Iraq, 5 November 2013 – It’s a sight you see all over the world on a Saturday afternoon – boys lined up in their football uniforms, getting ready to go onto the pitch.

Football is one of the world’s most popular sports, but for these boys, on this day, it has extra meaning.

They are Syrian refugees who live in Arbat camp in northern Iraq. They’re standing in a warehouse in the camp putting on brand new uniforms, waiting for two buses to take them away.

The simple trip has taken days to plan and execute. Most schoolboy football matches don’t involve government permission, security checkpoints, a convoy of UNICEF vehicles and bomb inspections.

© UNICEF Iraq/2013/Niles
“I'm excited. It’s my first time out of the camp,” said Loran, 14, who played in the tournament. A fan of the FB Barcelona football team, Loran has been living in Arbat for two months.

“I’m excited. It’s my first time out of the camp,” says Loran, 14, who plays defender, follows FC Barcelona – and has been living in Arbat camp for two months.
The day is possible because of the dedication of another young man, Dana Salahuddin, 20. He’s in his first year at university. The day after his exams finished in August, he went straight to the camp to work.

“I was volunteering, and I saw there were no activities for children,” he said.

He decided, using UNICEF funds, to stage a football tournament.

Once the boys are kitted out, they get on the buses and make their way to the American University in Sulimaniyah. They pass through a military checkpoint with minimal fuss and arrive half an hour later at the gleaming modern buildings of the university.

© UNICEF Iraq/2013/Niles
While volunteering in Arbat, Dana Salahuddin (left) had noticed there were no activities for children. With UNICEF support, he organized the tournament. Our goal was “to make children happy,” he said.

The boys are divided into three teams, representing FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United. Their hosts at the university also field a team.

The tournament begins, and, for a few hours, refugee life is forgotten and the boys snatch a glimpse of normality.

“It’s good for them to have something to think about apart from whether they have enough food or water,” says UNICEF WASH Consultant Atheer Al Yaseen, who helped Dana to stage the event, and is doubling as a referee.

Dana, who also takes to the pitch to play, says he’s satisfied by the smiling faces he sees around him.

“That was our goal, to make children happy,” he says.



UNICEF Photography: Syrian crisis

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