“The young boys did not accept the idea of playing with girls. I used to show them that I could play to challenge the stereotypical image of a football player in their minds. I resolved the situation by building up and training one team of female players only and had one team of male players coached by a man. Then they played each other and who won in the end? The female team. That’s how we solved the problem. We showed them girls could play. This helped them to start to accept girls” – Karime Akrouche, FutbolNet coach.
Tensions are running high in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. As one embarks on the two-hour inland drive through the mountains, away from the opulence of Beirut, the once-white tents pockmarked with scraps of canvas and topped with tyres start to appear.
Then their frequency increases until one cannot go 100 yards without being confronted by the devastating poverty that has flooded over the border as a result of the war in Syria. In the west the refugee crisis has dominated headlines but the Middle East is where the real crisis is. In Lebanon a population of just over six million includes almost 500,000 Palestinians and close to a million Syrian refugees, and that is just those who are registered.
One could be forgiven for thinking that football has no place in this world. Yet here, sitting on the frame of a bench in Bekaa with snow-capped mountains on either side, and the concrete structures of half-built holiday homes dotted over the landscape interspersed with the unregistered camps, sits 20-year-old Karime Akrouche, who is Lebanese, and seven other young female coaches who are explaining how they use football to try to help the lives of children.
This is not about finding the Middle East’s Lionel Messi. This is not a talent hunt. This is about the social power of football and its ability to smash down the barriers society constructs between people and cultures. With more than 50% of school-aged (3-18) refugee children outside formal education, football steps in.
The Barça Foundation, of Barcelona FC, runs a programme called FutbolNet here and I joined them on one of their trips. They train coaches to deliver a sports-based curriculum, with the values the football club prides itself on at the core. In the Bekaa Valley they have been working with the Cross Cultures Project Association since 2016 to host sessions for 1,300 children in six different parts of the valley every Friday, Saturday and Sunday – and 70% of them are refugees.
In addition, 6,000 children, 75% Lebanese and 25% Syrian, receive FutbolNet in their school PE sessions. And there is a drive to reach the second shift schools, set up to cope with the huge influx of refugee children and where there is no physical education at all.
“We faced a lot of problems at the beginning, the young Syrians refused to play with the Lebanese because their parents tell them not to play with other nationalities,” says Akrouche.
Rasha Al Drsini, 33, fled the Syrian war for the relative safety of Bekaa. “I was in art school in Syria and, whenever I had some free time, I would try to find a way to take part in sport,” she says. “When I heard about this programme I rushed to join it because of my love of sports. This programme has helped us forget our sufferings. It’s entertaining, it’s recreational and it has really helped. The kids defuse their tensions through these activities.”
A recruitment drive has meant that 40% of the coaches are now women. And as a result, 30% of the children taking part are girls – percentages that would be tough to match in the most liberal of countries. “And they create their own rules,” Akrouche adds. “They used to give two points for every goal scored by a girl, so they would start accepting more girls on to their teams to get more points. They were excited by girls on their teams.
“At first it was a little bit shocking for the young boys to see female coaches but over time they have come to accept us. It is easier for young girls to join the teams when there are female coaches. And the female coaches tend to be more tender; that’s good for boys and girls.”
These coaches, half of them Syrian, half Lebanese, are trying to change things from the bottom up. Some had little to no interest in football, but a love for the game has developed from seeing what it can do. They all follow football now and while a couple cheekily express their support for Real Madrid, to much laughter, the others are more loyal to their patrons.
The success of the programme is evident when you speak to the children. “I discovered that the Syrians are a lot like us. We have shared values,” says a Lebanese 12-year-old, Hadil Taimi. “What I do know is I want to be a part of something new, not the traditional role of women. I want to do something new. Women are playing crucial roles in so many fields – it’s exciting,”
Fatima Taan, 13, from Syria, adds: “At first it was hard for me to be accepted as a female football player. In my community we are not allowed to play with the ball, especially as I wear a hijab. But over time things have started to change. It’s very good to have female coaches. Sometimes women have a better capacity to coach than men.”
For the 23–year-old Riham Rahul, who is in her second year of working for FutbolNet, promoting a more natural way to stay fit in a very image conscious society has been important for her. “I believe that football is an art. It’s good for the body, to get rid of aggression and to combat diets.
“Girls are picky, they care a lot about the way they look, and their bodies. When I was a child I played football beside the house with boys. I didn’t like Barbies, I liked football. Sometimes the boys wouldn’t let me play. They were aggressive and said girls should stay at home and cook.
“They are children, they are sponges, so I can teach them that we are all one family regardless of nationality and colour. When someone gets hurt they stop the match to check whether they are OK. Football is not just a round ball, it’s about values and teamwork. You always have to be creative with kids and find new ways to interest them to catch them and keep them following you.
“We are superhero girls here. For the parents, too, we have to encourage them to trust us and send their children here, especially girls. Traditions and mentalities say girls shouldn’t be here. But for the girls that do go here, they begin to reflect a beautiful image about what having fun means and they take that into wider society.”
• Suzanne Wrack’s trip to Lebanon was paid for by the Barça Foundation