Real Madrid football academies help Gaza children overcome conflict-related trauma

A little more than a year ago, children in Gaza were excited to hear that the Real Madrid Foundation was collaborating with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to open several football academies in the coastal strip.

Unknown to organisers at the time, the football academies would become a valuable resource in helping Gaza children deal with stress and psychological trauma; especially in the aftermath of the recent eight-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip, during which children lived in fear under intense, constant bombardment.

The world-renowned football club and the UN Agency had teamed up to establish the academies in UNRWA educational centres in the occupied Palestinian territory, in an effort to promote values such as teamwork, gender equality, and leadership. The goal behind the new academies was to create an enabling environment, where children can acquire basic football skills and have fun playing sport.

All UNRWA schools had to close their doors because of the risk for students and teachers; in fact, many were hit and suffered structural damage.

On the same day a ceasefire took effect, UNRWA staff and volunteers worked hard to clear dangerous debris. This hard work enabled 225,000 children to return to school just two days after calm was restored.

Still, going back to school was not easy. Incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder and other conflict-related psychological disturbances among children in the Gaza Strip have risen sharply following the most recent conflict there, figures gathered by UNRWA and the UN children’s agency Unicef show.

Sport as therapy

“We have had an extremely difficult time trying to cope with the violence and casualties resulting from the recent conflict. In Gaza, the dreams of children seem to always turn into nightmares of destruction. They don’t get a break”, says Jehan Serhan, a school supervisor involved in setting up the football academies in the coastal strip. “This is where the Real Madrid Foundation’s work comes in.

“Students enrolled in the programme are able to take out their frustrations and express themselves by using playing football and other sports. Some even dream of travelling to Spain to play football with Spanish children.”

The football academies are proving effective in restoring a sense of normalcy and in helping children deal with stress, anxiety and other conflict-related psychological disturbances. “Since I started, my grades have improved and I’ve become a very good student,” says 13-year-old Malak from an UNRWA school in Rafah, and one of the project’s 200 female participants.

Around 1,000 refugee children from 11 schools – five in the Gaza Strip and six in the West Bank —have so far took part in the training and activities organised as part of the football academies. These include painting, research and scientific exploration, and of course, football matches.

Academies for the future

The Real Madrid Foundation joined forces with UNRWA to conduct training courses in the occupied Palestinian territory under a partnership agreement to promote sports in the Agency’s schools, and to contribute to improving the education and well-being of Palestine refugee children. This partnership agreement will lead to the establishment of eight “sport schools” in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, in which 10,000 Palestine refugee children will participate.

"This project is a good example of how sport can help build bridges between people," said Hussein, a 14 year-old student who goes to the Salah Iddin Basic Boys School.

"I'm a big fan of Real Madrid and I am very happy with their support. I feel that we have a special relationship with the Spanish people."