Scoring goals for peace in Iraq

In the town of Koya in north-eastern Iraq, a football tournament becomes a symbol of peace for Iraq's children

By Jennifer Sparks
Children play a football match
UNICEF Iraq/2017/Rfaat
11 April 2017

KOYA, Iraq, 11 April 2017 – A group of children run onto the pitch. The warm spring air is full of shouts and whistles as the first team takes to the field.

The event? An all-day football bonanza in the small Kurdish town of Koya, Iraq, about 50 km from the Iranian border. The matches, run by UNICEF, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Terre des Hommes, bring together a diverse array of children living in Koya to build relationships across demographic lines.

Children in Koya, Iraq, play together in a football tournament.

“I never thought I’d be playing football with kids from across Iraq,” said Rezhin, a 16-year-old girl. “Football is very important.” Rehzin says that peace is alive here in Koya, because children from different backgrounds are all playing together, including internally displaced persons, refugees and host communities.

One of Rezhin’s teammates is Mary, a 13-year-old from Mosul with impressive ball control skills. Relatively new to Koya, she is making her presence known on the field.

“I’m from Mosul. We left two years ago and moved to Baghdad. We moved to my uncle’s house in Koya nine months ago,” she says.

“I played football a bit in fifth grade, and our teacher gave us some tips about how to play,” she says. “I play well because I have confidence in myself.”

UNICEF Iraq/2017/Rfaat

Both girls and boys participated in the match. “It’s important for women to play football as well as men. It should be for everyone! My parents don’t have a problem with me playing,” says 13-year-old Mary.

“It’s important for women to play football as well as men. It should be for everyone! My parents don’t have a problem with me playing,” Mary says.

Both Mary and Rezhin agree that it’s important for women to have a more prominent place in sports. Neither could name a famous female footballer and they want to see more representation of women in sports both in Iraq and globally.

But on this sunny afternoon as they take to the field, these two are the ones to beat. “I score goals in every game,” says Rezhin. Combined with Mary’s confidence, they are unstoppable.

The football match is effective in bridging the gaps between the children, whether they are Arab or Kurdish, displaced or local. The long term goal, though, is for the relationships being built on the pitch to translate into building a more cohesive Iraq.

This event was made possible through the generous support of Germany’s KfW.

>> Learn more about UNICEF's humanitarian response in Iraq