Children fleeing war in Iraq are being taught football by Arsenal, who have teamed up with Save the Children to build pitches at camps for displaced people. The Victoria Derbyshire programme accompanied the club’s ladies’ captain Alex Scott as she trained with some of the children.
The tragedy of children forced from their homes by war and the wealth and vast fame of a Premier League club may not have much in common. But Arsenal says they hope this project will help children in the worst of circumstances experience the joy of football.
Esra, whose name has been changed, fled her home near Baghdad when the conflict gripping Iraq came to her front door. She left behind a large home, with a garden that she used to tend to with her dad, and now lives in a cramped two-roomed caravan in Alwand One camp in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, which is home to more than 6,000 people.
“We had to leave because bombings and explosions were happening and we were afraid one was going to reach our home. Rockets were being fired so we left in a hurry. I said goodbye to two of my friends, the others I couldn’t see,” the 12-year-old said.
“At the beginning I was very confused, I didn’t know how I could leave my home and come all the way here. But at least we feel safer here, we wouldn’t have been safe at home.”
This part of Iraq is relatively safe, but it is only a few hours from the front line and territory controlled by so-called Islamic State. Since January 2014, conflict has forced more than three million people to leave their homes in the country and half are children.
Of course, football is not going to bring their homes back, but it is hoped it can bring them an escape. And when asked what the good things are about the camp, Esra replies: “The school and the football pitch.”
Alex, who has more than 100 England caps, says that while she cannot compare her circumstances, football helped her while she was growing up.
“When I was playing in a metal football cage in the east end of London, with the A12 on either side, football was more than a game and it’s given me so much,” she said.
“That’s when I dreamed of playing for England and playing for Arsenal. That football cage was my Wembley. So football isn’t just a game, you can impact people’s lives.”
The two bright green artificial pitches provide an oasis of colour in the dusty brown landscape around the two camps, giving the children a safe space to play.
So far 2,500 children have had the chance to play on the pitches.
While Alex held a training session and a game exclusively for girls on one of the pitches, the boys watched on enviously from the other side of a chain-link fence. “The boys are desperate to get in here,” said Esra as she showed off her skills.
Squealing with excitement, the girls demonstrated their keepy-uppies, ball spinning and circuit training before donning bibs for a match. They all hugged Alex, telling her how excited they were to see her and asking if they kept training hard enough would they get to play for Arsenal too?
Along with Alex, Arsenal sent out a coach who has taught Save the Children’s in-camp staff the club’s training programme. It targets boys and girls equally and encourages the children to establish teams that “break down historic divides”.
The charity said it was particularly important that the girls were given the opportunity to play with Alex and their representative in Iraq, Farah Sayegh, said: “They come from very conservative families, it’s not really in their cultural norms that they would be taking part in such activities.
“To them Alex is such a source of inspiration, the fact she’s a woman and has made it internationally, to them it’s not common to have a female figure who is such a good leader.”
“I was talking to one of the girls yesterday and she was telling me, ‘I look forward as I’m walking to the football pitch, I look forward to coming here and forgetting all my problems’.
“Quite apart from providing playing time, discipline and structure in their lives, which are incredibly important things, there’s a very powerful statement, particularly to children that the people you idolise, the sport that you watch, cares about you,” Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis said.
Driving back to the airport, Alex became tearful as she reflected on what she had seen.
“I can’t wait to get home and tell my niece who’s eight and open her eyes to the situation we’re in compared to what other people go through. They’re just people in a bad circumstance and I don’t think we pay much attention to that,” she said.
“My niece is just lucky that she was born where she was and they are where they are. But they’re still people and they still dream the same dreams.”
Photographs by Tom Pilston.
The Victoria Derbyshire programme is broadcast on weekdays between 09:15 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.