By: Chris Niles
SULIMANIYAH, Iraq, 27 October 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.
“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 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.
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 Yasin, 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.