When soccer star Mehdi Ballouchy arrived to Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan he didn’t show up empty handed. Ballouchy, who is Moroccan, spent 11 years playing major league soccer. He knew that in Syria, as in most of the world, soccer is a wildly popular sport to watch and play. And so, when he came to visit the camp in 2017, he brought bags and bags of uniforms, cleats, and balls for the refugee teams.
Za’atari already had a huge soccer field, built by another organization. The bright green field gave a splash of color to the desert camp and a white “sports house” allowed the kids to hang out before and after the games. Life is hard in Za’atari: the electricity and water are unreliable, families have been split up, there’s a lack of jobs, and the future is uncertain. But, says Ballouchy, for a moment on the field, these kids can forget about life as a refugee.
In 2012, Za’atari, in the desert near the border of Jordan and Syria, opened to house the thousands of Syrians fleeing war in their country. Today, nearly a half million refugees have passed through Za’atari and 80,000 still live in the sprawling camp. Unable to return home, many are entering their seventh year as refugees in Jordan. The youngest generation has few memories of Syria: they recall bombs chasing them through the desert and to the border. (Read how young refugees cope with trauma from their journeys.)
One, a 13-year-old boy, plans to play for the Syrian league. Another, a 12-year-old girl named Laila Shukri Shwamrah, has spent half her life in Za’atari. "I [want to] send the other kids living at refugee camps a message that they should keep playing football and not give up and do not despair and keep their hopes high," she says in a short documentary shot by filmmaker Austin Meyer.
Ballouchy’s organization, Kickstart Joy, aims to bring sports into refugee camps around the world, starting with Za’atari. "Right when they cross the field they’re there to play, they're just another kid, on another soccer field, playing a game,” he says. (See the ingenious toys made by children in refugee camps.)
Austin Meyer is a documentary filmmaker from Santa Rosa, California. He is a National Geographic Explorer, winner of the New York Times’ international reporting trip with Nicholas Kristof competition, and a former IDEO Storytelling Fellow. Follow his stories @austinmeyerfilms on Instagram and Facebook.