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The World's Children Can Be Winners in Sport Too

11/08/2016 17:11 | Updated 11 August 2016

For six-year-old Muhammed who lives in the sprawling refugee camp Za'taari, the Olympics must feel like a world away. Having escaped from the fighting near his home in Daraa, Syria, three years ago, his world has since revolved around the small, basic cabins that provide his family with a safe shelter from the fighting.

But his young life has been no less touched by the power of sport than the lives of those who stand on the winners' podium. The 'Dreamland' centre, a short walk from his home in the camp has become a sanctuary for Muhammed to free himself from the trauma and stress he has lived through.

Funded by Unicef and run by a local NGO, the centre uses football and play mixed with psychosocial support, to help children like Muhammed become a child again.

Football tournaments are run on regular basis, interspersed with life-skills training, so that children learn how to transfer their negative energy into a positive force, encourage them to play as a team and improve the mental state of kids who have been left traumatised. For Muhammed, it has helped to turn him from a silent, angry child who played at 'shooting his friends', to a young boy who plays happily with others and wants to become captain of his football team.

In Lebanon, another country straining under the pressure of conflict on its' doorstep, child refugees from the Palestine and Syrian communities are being brought together through sport and play with their Lebanese hosts, to encourage dialogue and cohesion, and to help the young new arrivals assimilate into society. All too often, this is a hugely challenging task.

Over the past twenty years Unicef has increasingly weaved the power of sport into its development programmes, not only to help change the lives of young kids like Muhammed, but also to save lives.

In Bangladesh, a country where flooding is an everyday occurrence, drowning is one of the leading causes of death in children under five. But a Swim Safe scheme, run by Unicef and part funded by Manchester United Football Club, is teaching children how to swim, become instructors, and the basics of CPR. At the last count nearly a quarter of a million young boys and girls have been put through the training.

For other children, sport can mean the difference between whether they legally exist or not. In Vanuatu, which has one of the highest rates of unregistered births in the world, Unicef and the Vanuatu Football Federation hold two-day sport festivals as a way of reaching nearly 20,000 people with information about the importance of registering their baby's birth. Without a birth certificate a child is effectively invisible to authorities. It can be hard for them to access essential health, education and social services, and later on in life, get a job, passport, bank account and be able to vote.

Sport is such a powerful force it can unite an entire country behind an athlete going for gold and stir passions strong enough to fracture global politics. But it can also help to heal wounds in children that cut too deeply for us to see. It can teach youngsters how to save their own lives, make them feel part of a new country, or simply make sure they exist.

Just like the Olympic team, Unicef's list of sporting achievements is long. The young Congolese athlete Popole Misenga, competing in Rio as part of the first ever Refugee Olympic team is testament to that.

He last saw his mum and dad at the age of nine when conflict spilt over into his village and he was separated from his family after running into the woods. He was eventually rescued by Unicef and is now competing on the global stage with nine other world class athletes who together represent the 65 million people across the world who are currently displaced. Many of these millions are children.

Kicking a football round with friends or watching an elite athlete break a world record in the swimming pool, sport is such a simple pleasure that we all enjoy. But it can also help Unicef change and save the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in the world.

As we celebrate Olympic and Paralympic glory over the next few weeks, we should not only think about sport, but also the power it has to change disadvantaged children's lives.

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