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In Iraq, building a team on the field and off

By Chris Niles

A youth centre in the Kurdistan region of Iraq gives young people an opportunity to play and to learn – and also to be part of a community.

© UNICEF Iraq/2015
Khaled, 17 (third from left), playing in a football match on a pitch in Dohuk, Iraq. The game is part of a series of afternoon activities organized by the Avdan Centre, with support from UNICEF's No Lost Generation initiative.

DOHUK, Iraq, 16 September 2015 – The two young men are from different parts of Iraq, have different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and they can’t even agree on who is the best football player in the world.

“It’s Messi,” says Khaled, while Jolal sadly shakes his head. “Cristiano,” he says firmly.

Jolal is from Mosul, while Khaled, a member of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, is from Sinjar. In normal times, the two probably would never have met.  But these are not normal times, and Jolal and Khaled, both 17, are firm friends.

Every Saturday afternoon, the boys assemble on the football pitch for two hours of energetic play.

“My players are from Anbar, Sinjar and Mosul – from everywhere,” says their coach, Qaear. “And when I form a team, I deliberately choose children from different places.”

Bringing youth together

The boys met at the Avdan Centre in Dohuk. The centre, built as part of UNICEF’s No Lost Generation initiative and supported by a generous donation from the German Development Bank, provides opportunities for displaced and refugee children to mix with local young people.

© UNICEF Iraq/2015
Jolal, 17 (third from left), from Mosul, stands next to his friend Khaled, from Sinjar, after their Saturday afternoon football match at the Avdan Centre.

More than 500 children attend the centre every week for activities such as swimming, music, drawing and football.

Because football is so popular, the pitch is divided in half, with boys playing on one side, and girls on the other.

“We used to play one hour with boys on the full pitch, and then one hour with the girls,” Qaesar says. “But it wasn’t enough time for the children. They wanted to play for two hours. So now they can.”

Khaled was the first person I met here,” Jolal says during a break in play. “I’m so happy we’ve become good friends. If he needs me, I am there for him.”

“We live in the same neighbourhood, and we hang out together, not just at football,” Khaled says.

New friendships

On the girls’ side, Loreen, 14, is running up and down the pitch, taking every opportunity to try to put the ball in the goal. From Hasakah in Syria, Loreen has been in Dohuk for two years. “I like playing attack,” she says, in English, explaining that back in Syria her father was an English teacher.

© UNICEF Iraq/2015
The girls' football team warms up for a match at the Avdan Centre.

She hadn’t played football before joining the Avdan centre, but she’s glad that she did. “All of my teammates are my friends, and they’ve helped me very much,” she says. “Sometimes we sing together, too.”

As the session winds down, the teams come off the pitch, pack up their things and pick up the water bottles that they’ve used during the match, and prepare to get on the bus that will take them home. 

And thanks to the new community they’ve found, Duhok feels a little more like home for the children.

“We have friends now from Duhok,” Khaled says. “It’s been great. If we need anything, we have friends who’re willing to help us.”



UNICEF Photography: Support for Yazidis

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