Participation in sports improves children’s learning and skills development after years of conflict and hardship
By Sandra Awad and Lina Alqassab
Rural Damascus, Syria, 26 April 2021 - “We are sending a message to the community around us that every child, no matter their conditions, can be successful and do well if given a chance,” says coach Qosai Morshed, while giving a football training to a group of children and adolescents registered in the Integrated Learning Center, a new UNICEF-supported programme for the most vulnerable in As-Sweida, southern Syria.
In September 2020, and in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, UNICEF launched this programme to reach out-of-school children and those at risk of dropping out due to the impact of years of conflict, harsh social conditions, and a deteriorating economy. It aims to get them back to education, develop their skills, invest in their talents, and support their mental and physical health while countering negative stereotypes about them.
The programme’s workforce of 30 community workers first started with establishing trust and communication with participants by engaging them in recreational activities such as tours, theatres, painting, and music. The team then engaged children in discussions to understand their needs and interests and made home visits to each family to talk to the children and their parents about the different educational, developmental and participatory activities available to them through the programme, including supportive and remedial classes and life-skill education through playing their favorite sports.
“At first, we faced challenges convincing many children to get back to education, especially those who had been out of school, working for long years to support their families,” says Thara’a, the center’s director.
“To change that, we stimulated their imagination through, for example, asking them to picture travelling to their futures in a time machine. That’s when they understood that in order to become the persons they dreamt of becoming, they had to pursue an education.”
Now, 72 children and adolescents frequent the UNICEF-supported center three times a week. As many of them are out of school, in labor, or both, the program runs in two shifts a day to enable them to accommodate lessons and play time together with their other commitments.
“We noticed that coming to the games has improved their discipline and performance during their classes,” adds Qosai.
“Those who had concentration difficulties became more focused and those who had behavioral problems found a new outlet to discharge their energy,” he adds.
One of the youngest children at the centre, Maher, 9, had been out of school selling biscuits to support his family after his father lost his sight and subsequently, his job two years ago. Thanks to the programme, the Maher is attending supportive classes and playing football regularly.
“I go home so relieved after each match and wait impatiently for the next!” he says excitedly.
Teammates, Fida’a, 15, from As-Sweida and Mostafa, 13, from Sbeineh in Rural Damascus, also dropped out from school for years and had to sell biscuits on streets to shore up their families.
“If I didn’t have to work, I would spend my time playing, biking and running with my friends,” says Fida’a who left school after sixth grade and is now back to learning through the center.
“I love football so much that I want to become a professional player in the future. I feel now that I’m taking the first step towards my dream,” jumps in Mostafa who was displaced from his hometown eight years ago and had never seen the inside of a classroom before registering in the programme.
The games also helped Fatima, 11, grow more confident about her abilities.
“It was awkward at first because I thought girls couldn’t compete with boys when it comes to football, but in time, I found that I can play just as good!” says Fatima who lives with her mother and ten siblings in a tent since they fled their home in rural Aleppo seven years ago. For years, she had been out of school collecting and selling wood to support her family after her father passed away. She dreams of becoming a musician one day.