“What do you like about playing football?” we ask.
“Everything!” Sandra is the first to blurt out her answer.
We’re standing mid-field, groups of girls around us in bright-colored uniforms. Although we lean in close to hear their words, the sounds of soccer drills nearly drown out their voices. Traffic from nearby streets adds to the din, as does the younger sibling screaming on the sidelines. The sun barely hovers above the skyline, and the whole world turns pink. It’s a perfect evening.
“What’s the most challenging thing about living here?” we ask. In reply, the girls take turns speaking and nodding. The neighborhood’s lack of security. The fear of being attacked. The fear of being assaulted. It weighs on these girls—in their Lebanon neighborhood, they don’t feel safe. It’s not hard to imagine why, passing buildings pockmarked by bullets, and hearing so many stories of sectarian violence.
“Does it help that you have this big group of people looking out for you?”
“Yes, definitely.” They smile and nod.
This isn’t the kind of space where you can call out to random kids on the street to join your game. It’s the kind of place where political divisions and poverty color everyday life. This isn’t the kind of place where everyone looks after everyone else’s kids. It’s the kind of place where being in the wrong place at the wrong time could be deadly. It’s definitely not the kind of place considered “fun.”
Except for soccer days.
On practice and game days, these kids laugh! They sweat, work hard, and face their fears. “I like that I can ask someone else to play with me, to support me, to give me a pass,” Rezan tells us. And what does she find the most challenging part of the game? “When I reach the goal to strike, and everyone–the defenders–come to me. I’m afraid of this part.”
Being rushed by a group can be scary! But in this case, it’s building trust. Each girl on these teams now knows that sprinkled around this neighborhood are other girls who understand the love of the game–and have had their backs on the artificial grass.
Play on this field is a gateway to community healing. Play brings kids together from across sectarian lines and puts them in sports uniforms that identify them all as “us” rather than “them.” Play provides a safe space to build trust, encourage, and compete. Play builds confidence and skills, savvy and health. And because this community of peacemakers believes in holistic care, players receive monthly food parcels for their families, so their place on the team benefits the whole family.
Manal is the smallest in the group, but also one of the most confident. She dreams of being a doctor and a soccer player when she’s older. Not so long ago, Manal didn’t know all the good things this kind of play would bring to her life.
“I love being the goalkeeper,” Manal says with a smile.
“You have to be brave to be a goalkeeper.”
“I am,” she says matter of factly.