The teenagers who are mitigating a refugee crisis

Suha, a fourteen-year-old Syrian, and Maha and Maram, fifteen-year-old Jordanians, were yelling, calling each other names. Something had happened during lunch break – perhaps a misinterpreted remark, a bad choice of words. A verbal fight broke out, and the bystanders were quickly taking sides. When we intervened, the two Jordanians refused to interact with Suha and her friends. They explained that they had a fight with some Syrian girls in the previous days, and they were not going to talk to anyone from the refugee community.

On day one of our football camp for girls, tensions were high.

Suha’s family is one of thousands that fled the devastating five-year war that has brought the Syrian population to its knees, seeking respite in northern Jordan. The refugees have started new lives there, but they are outsiders, marginalized – a foreign body in the local community.

Like other fourteen-year-old girls, Suha attends school. She goes to class in the afternoon with other Syrian girls, while her Jordanian peers, including Maha and Maram, attend lessons in the morning. Although they go to the same schools and frequent the same public spaces, there is no space for interaction between them, apart from brief moments when they pass each other. This distance reminds them of their differences and strengthens their mutual mistrust.

Maha, Maram and the other Jordanian girls have seen their lives change since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. The high influx of refugees increased competition over scarce economic resources, causing Jordanians to view Syrians as a burden. The relations between them are strained across ages and social groups – not least, children and youth. The high number of young refugees entering Jordanian schools has meant that schooling hours have been reduced for both Syrian and Jordanians. In these circumstances, it’s easy for Jordanian students to view their Syrian counterparts as an “other”, usurping their right to quality education.

The argument between Maram, Maha, and Suha is a vivid illustration of how these dangerous stereotypes can escalate and must be tackled before conflict arises. When we stepped in, our idea was to create a space where young Syrian and Jordanian girls could interact and go beyond their misconceptions. And what better tool to do that than soccer?

Our two partners, the Asian Football Development Project and the Jordanian Football Association, helped us get started, with funding from UN Women. We set up three soccer camps, where the students could play sports and games in mixed teams, learn nonviolent communication, and build friendships that would benefit the whole community. For many of the girls, this was the first-ever opportunity to interact with someone from the other group.

Despite the rough start, the tensions of the first day vanished pretty quickly. Suha, Maha, and Maram started talking with each other and made a startling discovery – that regardless of their nationality, they are all teenage girls who share interests, goals, and dreams.

In groups of four – two Jordanians and two Syrians -, the girls designed joint initiatives to bring their two communities together, ranging from public debates to art performances, to sporting competitions. They will present their plans to their parents and teachers at our program’s upcoming closing event.

At the final reflection session of the soccer camp, the girls talked about their new friendships. “I never thought I would play or talk with Syrian girls,” Maha said. “The camp gave me an opportunity to get to know them closely and understand we have a lot in common.”

That understanding is the first step towards a cohesive society, where violence has no place. In time, these girls can become true peacebuilders and activists, the bedrock of a harmonious Jordan. We will be there to support them.