Football for change: Israa and Afraa's story from Hama, Syria

Adolescent girls share their experience on sports and social cohesion

Lina Alqassab
Girl playing football
UNICEF/ Syria 2019/Abdulaziz Aldroubi
07 April 2019

Best friends, Israa and Afraa, 18, are members of a girl’s football team in Hama city, Syria supported by UNICEF under the sports for development programme. The innovative programme uses sports to support the healthy lifestyle and wellbeing of young girls and boys while enhancing social cohesion and including the most vulnerable youth groups.

Longtime friends and neighbours, the two started attending a UNICEF-supported adolescent-friendly space last year. At the centre, youth engage in vocational, entrepreneurship, life skills training; recreational, educational and sports activities; and in youth-led community initiatives. It was there that the girls learned of the football team.

Girl playing football
UNICEF/ Syria 2019/ Abdulaziz Droubi

“In our community, it is not common for girls to play football. Our behaviour is constrained by social norms. But I’m bold by nature and I like trying new things, so I decided to join!”

18-year-old Israa

Despite negative reactions from their families, neighbours and friends, the girls were determined to prove that they too, can play football.

“The life skills course we took helped us a lot, especially when it came to communication and conflict resolution skills,” says Afraa, also in Grade 12.

“Persuasion worked with some family members, while with those who still had different opinions, we accepted and managed our differences,” she explains.

The two girls decided to make use of their free time and invest it in constructive habits.

“At our age, it’s very easy to fall into all kinds of unhealthy habits,” adds Israa.

“But when I play football, I feel all the negative emotions being replaced by positive energy,”

18-year-old Israa

Coached by a professional football trainer and a specialized dietitian, the girls learnt how to take care of their health and wellbeing.

“I’m much stronger both physically and mentally now; it’s rare that I feel lazy or grumpy like I used to,” says Afraa.

The UNICEF-supported team brings together girls from different backgrounds and experiences. Some who have been displaced and regularly face prejudice in their neighbourhoods were brought together to play with girls from the host community.

Two girl friends high-five
UNICEF/ Syria 2019/ Abdulaziz Droubi

“It has taught us that if we can come together on the field, we can come together in society!”

Israa, capturing the spirit of tolerance and social cohesion that the programme instills.

Thanks to generous contributions from Japan, Finland and Canada, over 1,200 youth and adolescents benefitted from the sports for development programme in the governorate of Hama.