By Arthur Peirce
Worldwide, one game rules.
It is a game that connects people, it’s a game that fosters both community spirit and friendly rivalry. Its popularity endures and will continue to do so.
It is played in schoolyards and scrap yards, village greens to car parks, from stadiums to cattle fields. Football is king.
In Ritsona refugee camp, this as true as it is anywhere else.
Life in Ritsona lacks focus. Children, like all people, need the comfort of routine. Children need avenues for self-expression, and for exercise. Even finding an activity to fill a few hours can have a huge impact on a child’s wellbeing. Such things provide a break from the often monotonous life in a place like Ritsona.
These are things Lighthouse Relief is committed to providing in both our Child-Friendly Space (CFS) and Youth Engagement Space (YES).
Though the children here always enjoyed football. For the longest time, however, the ability to actually play the game was limited.
For a long time, Football was often played in a dirty far corner of the camp. The children played around trees and over gravel and roots. Large rocks were goalposts. Children played barefoot or in worn-out rubber shoes. Yet despite the difficulty, football was always being played.
Over time, many children started to show a real passion and talent for the game.
But this dedication, unfortunately, was limited by their circumstance. No talent scouts come to places like Ritsona.
For these players to truly grow their skills. To truly make the most of the game, something needed to be done.
It became clear to us that there was a real demand for a more professional and structured approach to football in Ritsona.
The Football Initiative
Realising this demand, Lighthouse Relief has recently hired a UEFA licensed coach to provide the youth and children of Ritsona professional-level football coaching.
The reaction to these workshops was immediate and enthusiastic. Since the very moment, they began it has not been uncommon to see 50+ children attend or observe the workshops.
Some days are focused on smaller children, others, older children and youth. As such all children who are interested in playing have the chance to enjoy the game in a way that is tailored to their age and skill level.
In the weeks since the workshops began, we’ve started to notice a real change in the children who attend. The stimulation and exercise the workshops provide have allowed children to focus their energies in a way that is healthy and productive. Indeed, some of the most dedicated children had previously shown little engagement in Lighthouse Relief’s activities.
But of course, all of the children who attend are enjoying the many values that football encourages. Values like the importance of teamwork, team spirit, leadership, and strategic thinking are being taught to the children in a way they enjoy.
It is our hope that the children, long after they have left the confines of Ritsona, will continue to benefit from what they have learned here.
The workshops usually begin with basic exercises, before progressing into more difficult techniques, with the second half of each workshop ending with a full-sized match. To begin with, the coach taught the fundamentals, with each successive workshop introducing new techniques, and styles. Because of this structure, the skills of all children have developed impressively.
Watching the children play the game, it can be easy to forget their situation. Refugee children in the media are often depicted as powerless victims, yet they have transformed themselves into a group of promising football players. We merely provided them the tools.
One unexpected, but extremely positive outcome of these workshops, is that it has given the children an additional way to connect to the Greek people. The football coach, Georgios, is from Chalkida, the nearest town. In the weeks since he started work, he has quickly built great relationships with all the children who attend. This is despite the fact that he cannot speak a word of Arabic or Kurdish (the two groups which most commonly attend the workshops).
Ritsona can sometimes feel detached from Greece, it is relatively isolated, so visiting nearby Greek cities and towns can be difficult. This is complicated further by the fact that most NGO staff and volunteers are not Greek. Indeed, in Ritsona, English is more widely spoken than Greek.
Georgios’s presence has meant there has been a regular and positive Greek influence on the children. Something we hope may make them feel a stronger connection to the country they currently reside.
We’ve noticed that some of the children who can speak Greek or are learning the language often work as translators for him. This has allowed the children to develop their language skills as well as their football skills.
The Sol Foundation
Though this programme originated with us, we would not have been able to provide it nearly as effectively, were it not for the financial assistance of the Sol Foundation.
The foundation provides funds for sports initiatives the world over, and through this, has helped thousands of young people the world over. We are proud to be associated with them.
The football programme has only been operating for one month, and its impact can already be felt. Both we, and the children and young people of Ritsona are excited to see how it develops over time.
Yet more work is needed, football is still played in the refugee camp, our football pitch is the dusty helicopter landing pad of the abandoned military base which is now Ritsona. Some of the younger children often come to play shoeless (though we insist that they wear trainers). But with the help of our players, Georgios our fantastic coach, the Sol Foundation, and all of our incredible donors. We are at the start of something special.
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