Lowering her head to avoid the glaring sun, 14-year-old Baraa makes her way home from school. Her walk is a series of left and right hand turns with each street looking remarkably like the next, differentiated only by the graffiti markings on the cement walls of the houses. Compensating for green space and playgrounds, these streets are a hub of constant activity. A group of four boys chat loudly as they sew a torn kite. A four-year-old girl shuffles past in her mother’s shoes, while a handful of young men holler at one another as they race by kicking a ball back and forth.
Since 1948, the Al Baqa’a refugee camp and its busy streets have been home to thousands of children. Baraa and her nine siblings are third-generation Palestinian residents, born and raised inside the camp’s cement walls. It’s the oldest refugee camp in Jordan and has for most of that time housed mainly Palestinian refugees. Five years ago, it also became home for Syrians fleeing their country’s ongoing civil war. Now, 350,000 Palestinian and 50,000 Syrian refugees live within the camp’s 1.4 square kilometres. Fifty per cent of them are children. Growing up here isn’t easy, especially for girls.
“The children live in hard conditions,” affirms Qusai, the field facilitator. “There are no resources to entertain them and there are no after-school programs. Even if there were, most of the girls would not be allowed to participate.”
Many of the camp’s residents follow traditional, cultural customs, like marrying girls at the age of 16 or younger and prohibiting girls from playing games and sports outside of the family home. Baraa’s family is one of the exceptions to this rule. While she does not play outside in the streets, her parents allow her to participate in the ‘Generation Amazing’ program where she joins a group of her peers at the Yarmouk Community Centre three times a week to play games and activities and to learn football. A leadership-building program, Generation Amazing uses football as a learning and development tool to teach children how to communicate and work as a team.
“My parents are different from other parents; they have always treated me and my brothers the same,” explains Baraa, who has four brothers, five sisters and is the middle child. “One of my older sisters is a volunteer coach for Generation Amazing, so when she asked my parents if I could join the club and play football, they said yes right away.”
The Generation Amazing program uses football to engage the camp’s children in extracurricular, play-based learning activities.
The coaches, all trained in Right To Play’s play-based, child-centered learning approach, use football drills like dribbling and passing to teach the girls and boys social skills like teamwork, acceptance and cooperation, and to create awareness about inclusion and gender equality, while motivating the girls to participate.
“Last year, when we first started this program, we didn’t think any girls would show up,” says Qusai. “So we talked to the parents in the community and encouraged them to let their daughters join. It was very slow in the beginning, but once the parents saw their children growing in confidence, respect and self-esteem they trusted us and allowed their daughters to participate.”
Currently, there are more than 500 girls between the ages 10 to 16 years in the program with an equal number of boys participating. Despite having to play on gender-segregated teams, the experience is fun and engaging and all of the children are learning that girls have the same capabilities and skills as boys. “I’d never played proper football on a team before,” says Baraa. “But my coach told us that it’s okay for girls to play and that there is no difference between boys and girls.”
With play at the centre of each session, before and after group discussions bookend each activity. Led by the Generation Amazing program coaches, the children talk about gender equality and what it means to them.
They discuss cultural expectations, like girls not being allowed to participate in football and why boys are allowed to play on the streets after school and girls are expected to come straight home. For most of the children it’s the first time they’ve been asked to share their opinions about gender equality and it’s boosting their confidence.
“Playing football taught me how to be brave and talk to people I don’t know,” says Baraa. “I could not have done this before. It also encouraged me to have good marks in school, to focus on what I want and how to get it.”
Communicating as a group is an essential component of play-based learning. As the children “reflect” on the games they’ve played and the lessons they learned while playing, they “connect” this information to their own experiences and “apply” what they’ve learned to their daily lives. In a recent survey, youth in Jordan’s Al Baqa’a-based Generation Amazing program scored 83% in self-expression, that’s 11% higher than when these girls and boys first joined the program last year.
“Some people only love boys and think that boys bring them luck, but I believe girls can too,” says Baraa. “When I started playing football, I realized I could play just as good as the boys and I began to see that nobody is better than anybody else. At first, my only dreams were to score a goal, but now I want to be a professional football player when I grow up, and an art teacher.”
Story by Adriana Ermter
Photography by Paul Bettings