ISLAHIYE, Turkey, January 2013 – With the bell still echoing in the corridors of the Islahiye camp school, recently built by UNICEF and the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), a group of Syrian children gather excitedly on the football field outside the nearby Child Friendly Space. UNICEF cyan-blue schoolbags are left by the goalposts or on the back of the nets, and the teams are chosen. Within seconds, the match is under way.
Although it’s January, the players don’t feel cold at all, thanks to the sun and the energy they spend running around. The sun is still high in the sky, and the shadows of the children fall sharply on the ground.
After the match, there’s time to chat. Ekrem Acuz is ten years old and studying in 5th grade. His father is the deputy principal of the school and his mother works there as a teacher. Breathlessly, he tells us that he plays football here with his friends every day after school.
Both the goalkeeper and striker Ekrem answer without hesitation when asked about their favourite footballer: “Messi!” Considered by many to be the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, is undoubtedly the Syrian children’s favourite. But Ekrem wants to be a doctor, not a footballer, when he grows up.
You can often see children playing football here – not only on the football field but near the wire fences surrounding the field as well. Wire fences serve as a security tool for the administration, as clothes dryers for mothers and as goalposts for the children. For them, place and time don’t matter much. The important thing is to get together with a couple of friends and to have a ball to run after.
The magic of football takes hold of Syrian children living in the camps in Turkey almost every day, as it does to other children all around the world. But what distinguishes this game from the others is that it goes some way to helping with the players’ traumas of war.
As the children attend school in the camp, they can hardly wait for the next game.