AMMAN — In 2015, Ismail al-Jouri lost his hand to a landmine in northern Raqqa countryside village of al-Sukkariyah, after which he went into a years-long state of isolation and withdrawal. That only changed when he started playing with the village soccer team. The game became his whole life, and his greatest wish is “to become a soccer player.”
Al-Jouri, now 11, started playing on the village team some three years ago. Today, he plays “midfield on the team, passing the ball to the team’s offensive players,” he told Syria Direct through voice messages on WhatsApp. At the time of the interview, he was preparing “to go to Tal Abyad city for a friendly match with its team.”
Al-Jouri and his teammates on the al-Sukkariyah junior team stood as a success story last September when they won the Tal Abyad Soccer Championship, held in what are known as the “Peace Spring” areas, named after the military operation carried out by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups against the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October 2019. The al-Sukkariyah team’s success came despite a lack of resources. “The team of 15 children was built with basic and individual efforts, on farmland that was converted into a soccer field,” Muhammad Abu Hamoud, the team’s coach, told Syria Direct.
More important than the trophy Ismail held up with his uninjured hand was that he left behind the mental state that clung to him since he was injured by an ISIS landmine, his father Mustafa told Syria Direct. Ismail spent years “turned in on himself, avoiding interacting with people,” the father recalled, “and if he did, trying to hide his arm behind his back.” But today, “when he plays soccer, he forgets everything, and you feel as though he is a different person.”
Sports are not a priority
In a country suffering the ravages of war for a decade, and 13.1 million citizens reliant on humanitarian aid—including 6.6 million displaced people—sports have become a luxury, the last activity on the list of priorities for Syrians.
“Any sporting activity is met with mockery and attacks from people on social media,” activist and athlete Maher Sheddow told Syria Direct. The critics “see feeding the hungry as the priority, and that organizing a soccer game, for example, is wasting time on unimportant activities.”
Likewise, “sports and support for Syrian athletic talents in Syria, as well as [among] the refugees in Turkey, is outside the interest of opposition bodies,” according to Sheddow, who is from al-Sukkariyah in the Tal Abyad region but currently lives in southern Turkey. The Tal Abyad Championship, organized by the Sports Office of the city’s local council, “showed many emerging talents in need of care and attention, including Ismail, who lost his hand and who is most in need of moral and psychological support,” Sheddow said.
“Play is part of the natural development process for children, and it is a physiological need,” Mahmoud Qaddour, a psychological support worker with the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), stressed. And such importance increases in times of war, as “in play, the tension and anxiety that children suffer from can be treated, and it helps them relax,” he told Syria Direct.
However, “the idea of integrating injured children into group sports activities to get them out of their isolation is an effective idea, must be gradual,” Qaddour stressed, “in order to avoid any negative results, like the injured child being bullied.” Accordingly, “the process begins with introductory sessions between the injured children and the able-bodied children, then doing simple exercises and activities without playing, until the injured, and those around them are mentally ready to engage collectively in sports activities.”
Few abilities and many obstacles
The “Peace Spring” military operation has resulted in the Turkish-backed opposition Syrian National Army taking control over Tal Abyad in the northern countryside of Raqqa, as well as the city of Ras al-Ain in Hasakah province.
Consequently, the Tal Abyad Local Council was formed in October 2019 to provide basic services to the area. Since that time, however, the area has continued to suffer from poor living and security conditions, and above all, “social and material obstacles and a shortage of qualified human resources,” according to Sara Elewi, who works at the Qatra Humanitarian Foundation in Tal Abyad.
The focus of the organizations working in the region is currently “on medical and relief support,” Elewi told Syria Direct, while “the protection and psychological support sector is absent, except for psychological support for kindergarten-aged children and women” provided by the Qatra Foundation.
According to a 2019 UNICEF report, more than 3,000 Syrian children have been injured as a result of the war since 2014, and “more than two-thirds of children with physical or mental disabilities need specialized health services which are not available in their areas.”
In Tal Abyad, for example, where Ismail lives, there is no organization or agency to fit prosthetic limbs for amputees, his father said, leaving no way to treat his son except “by getting to Turkey, which is beyond our ability.” Thus, while Ismail’s wish is to become a soccer player, his father is longing to find “an organization to support him medically by fitting him with a prosthetic limb, and that would cultivate and develop his interests.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.