How Syria’s traumatised youngsters are learning to heal through football

With a ball at her feet and the desert wind at her back, 15-year-old Sondos al Hamed is busy scoring a hat-trick of precious goals in her life.

Putting the horrors of war behind her. Looking with hope to a brighter future. And being happy again.

Football has given her back a life blown apart when her house was bombed by Syrian government forces in the relentless civil war.

The force of the blast upended a cooking pot and screaming Sondos was sprayed with boiling water and shrapnel.

“When they removed my clothes, the skin tore off,” she says.

“There were pieces of shrapnel in the burn. The pain was so great I didn’t want to live any more.”

Sadness briefly shadows Sondos’ eyes as she shows me the scars. And then she is off with the ball again, running among the other young girls, laughter filling the air.

Her world, and that of so many other children, was changed when Arsenal coaches pitched up in the Za’atari camp in Jordan where her family live among 77,000 refugees.

The North London club’s Coaching for Life programme is dedicated to taking the beautiful game to some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous places.

Club legends like Martin Keown, Ray Parlour and Per Mertesacker have visited Jordan and Indonesia, where coaches teach children how to work as a team and resolve conflict by playing football.

It’s organised with Save the ­Children, founded by activist ­Eglantyne Jebb 100 years ago tomorrow in response to the devastation of the First World War.

She would be proud of Sondos. Not only has this young footballer jinked her way around her despair, but she also nutmegged centuries- old sexism too when sister Hamad, 18, persuaded her to join in.

“Some people called us naughty when we started playing,” she says.

“They said we’d stolen a man’s sport. But football is not just for boys – it’s for girls too.”

The sisters’ dad Saif was a policeman in Daraa city when the civil war broke out in March 2011.

Hundreds of thousands of ­civilians have died, with millions displaced as President Bashir al-Assad battles a raft of dissident groups in a conflict which has lasted eight brutal years.

The girls say Saif refused to become a sniper for the government, so he was shot in the leg and jailed. When he was released a year later, the family fled to Jordan.

Teammate Hanan weeps as she tells us her best friend Alissar drowned in the Mediterranean as her family tried to flee to Europe.

She says: “We were always naughty together. Football has helped as I was always sad after her accident.”

The Al Hraki family has been here for seven years. They fled to Jordan after their village was bombed.

Sisters Booroj, 17, and Noor, 15, hoot with laughter as they try to tackle Sondos and Hanan. But off the pitch the bad memories can return.

Borooj tells me how she saw her neighbour’s little son killed by a bomb.

“This was normal in Syria,” she shrugs.

“I saw him lying dead in the road. We had to leave Jordan at night in the car. We turned all the lights off so snipers wouldn’t see us.

“My mum drugged my baby brother so he would sleep. But I was playing with a lighter, and they saw us and started shooting.”

Miraculously they managed to get away.

Her sister Noor adds: “I don’t want to stay here for ever, but football has helped us make new friends.

“I hardly had any – now I have loads.” One is Tofahha al Hame, 16. For two years, she barely left her family’s corrugated iron hut.

The girl in the next hut was sold into child marriage. Aid workers feared she’d be next. They prayed football could give her a future.

Tofahha says: “My mum didn’t want me to play. It was my dad who said yes.”

Like the girls she plays with, Tofahha has spent nearly half her life in the camp. But she recalls the horrors of her homeland as if they were yesterday.

“I saw the army kill a boy about 16 at a checkpoint,” she says. “I saw the bullet go into his chest and his family crying around him. I still think about it.”

Over on the boys’ pitch, 13-year-old Subhi Hariri knows Tofahha’s pain.

“There were air strikes in our village every day. My uncle was killed by a bomb. We were in mental pain.”

His brothers Omar, four, and Anas, one, were born in the camp and he hopes to teach them keepie-uppie one day.

Before football, I lashed out at my brothers. Now I play with them. It’s taught me to think of others.”

Subhi’s teammate Ezalddein Abed-alnaser, 16, fled from Syria around the same time.

Most nights his mum holds his hand as war scenes play in his head.

He saw a sniper shoot his neighbour dead. Weeks later, Ezalddein’s sister’s husband was kidnapped and his body dumped at her door.

Ezalddein says: “I get afraid around midnight and I cry so my family sits with me. My sister is still in Syria. She has children. I’m scared for her.”

But football has given him a priceless gift – the chance to dream, and to laugh just like Sondos on the next pitch.

“I love playing and I’ve made friends. I’d love to be a professional. I should say I want to play for Arsenal,” he says with a cheeky grin.

“But I’d like to play for Paris St Germain.”

  • Coaching for Life combines the expertise of The Arsenal Foundation and Save the Children to empower and protect children in the world’s toughest places. Together they are improving children’s mental wellbeing and building inner strength through football. To donate, visit this page

When children lose we all lose, says Arsenal legend Per

Former Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker said the trip he made to the camp as part of the coaching team last September will stay with him for ever.

The German World Cup winner, who now manages the club’s academy players, said: “Children living in Za’atari have experienced things no child should ever have to.

“They are at risk of losing out on their childhoods – and when children lose, we all lose.

“The coaching programme is for the most vulnerable children in the camp. It helps them build their self-esteem and improve their mental wellbeing.

“It’s not just about them playing football, it’s about equipping them for life and giving them opportunities.”

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