This summer I visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for the first time to witness the power of sport within the lives of refugees as part of an Olympic Channel original series called Camps to Champs, produced by ITN Productions.
I was incredibly moved to see how sport impacted upon the lives of people and was able to participate in women's football, taekwondo, wrestling and table tennis.
You can watch the full episode here:
I arrived at Amman airport with little knowledge as to what to expect during the filming. I only knew I'd be visiting the Zaatari refugee camp and exploring the sport charities that work in such difficult conditions.
In Amman, I met our team: James and Tomiko from ITN Productions and Hala, our talented translator and Ghaith, our charming driver. Both spoke perfect English. I describe us as a team as we jelled immediately and worked together well too. Much to our amusement, Ghaith said we should call him 'Jason' as, if he could be any other man than himself, he would choose to be British action actor Jason Statham. So Jason it was!
For the first day heading to Zaatari, I began to understand more about the geography of the desert. On the way to the camp we drove further into desert land. The camp is about 15km from the Syrian border. Jordanians don't inhabit this part of the desert, as it gets so hot during the day and at night temperatures dip to freezing. We all struggled with the heat in the camp - I mainly survived on Coca Cola and water - a high sugar drink while also keeping up my hydration. We filmed all day until we had to leave the camp at 3pm, so we made the most of our time until the enforced closure each day. It is a harsh environment in many ways.
Even in the desert, there was an ever-present reminder of the resilience and adaptability of nature in order to survive; the camel farms were thriving and there was a strange enjoyment in seeing successful farming in the middle of one of the toughest landscapes on the planet. I found it fascinating.
The image of the roadside signpost highlighted to us exactly where we were. Syria is a war zone and we were right on the border. We were right at the crossroads, just 200 meters away from extreme danger. That's less than one lap of a running track. Never did I imagine to find myself stood in front of such a road sign, taking a snap like a tourist whilst so close to potential and significant harm.
Once inside the camp, the first group of Syrians I met were members of the wrestling club. This is one of Syria's most popular sports. Wrestling is the only sport in the camp that only boys can practice. Male-only participation in sport is a normality for Syrians back in their old way of life, but changing attitudes in the camp have empowered girls to participate in most other sports.
Next I met, Amal, a now single mother of 5 who is the women's football coach. I connected with Amal the most out of all the Syrian people I met. She was strong, determined and full of spirit. Yet, amongst her own people she had been cast out and frowned upon for encouraging girls to play football. She explained how she had been insulted and had stones thrown at her when she first started coaching in the camp. It is now better and there is greater tolerance. Her story of how she fled Syria was incredibly upsetting. Her family experienced the horror of war crimes such as murder and rape - she explained that in setting up the girls' football club and about the resistance she had encountered in the camp, that a 'few stones thrown at her' was nothing compared to what she had fled.
I joined in the football practice with the girls - what an incredible experience to play football with girls in the middle of a refugee camp in an unforgiving desert. After, I was invited to Amal's 'home' where she showed, with enormous pride, her coaching qualifications gained whilst in the camp thanks to the support of charities. It was then that she told her story....
The next day, we met Adham; he plays table tennis and manages the table tennis club. He owned an Italian restaurant in Syria. Table tennis was his hobby. I watched the men's tournament and gave out the awards at the end. Children came to watch their dads in the tournament and other children playing outside came. The children were very intrigued by my pale skin and long showing hair.
After the match, we were invited to Adham's home where he told his story. It was a traumatic account of the most terrible persecution and his survival against the odds. His poor son continually wept and trembled while his Dad retold their story. He had been rounded up along with other men in his village, made to face a wall with the rest of the men and then the shooting began. He was the sole survivor. I felt his frustration with life in the camp - the anger about the horror in his homeland, the endless waiting and the hopelessness. There is nothing to do in the camp to distract from the memories about their lives before, so the sport, the clubs and the participation provide an excellent outlet for energy and frustration whilst offering children a chance to enjoy playing and training.
Adham refused to let us leave his home without staying for lunch. Providing hospitality for guests is a Syrian cultural tradition and Adham's pride as a man remained intact when we accepted his generosity. The family produced a resourceful feast for us. Houmous, breads, olives and spicy stewed tomatoes enjoyed with mint tea and rounded off with Arabic coffee. These people live on rations and mainly canned food. The meal was a guilty pleasure as it was delicious but we knew it must have exhausted their rations. However, Adham's pride in providing for his guests was of the greatest importance to him and we had to honour that need.
The taekwondo centre was an incredible charity set up by a Korean doctor. He chooses to live in the camp with the refugees in order to try and provide some hope and useful life experiences. In the taekwondo centre professional coaches hold sessions for the children. This is the only activity where girls and boys are allowed to participate together because here the rules of the Korean doctor apply. The sport is empowering and instills discipline. Each child who completes a session can take home an egg. This is possible because the centre has a small farm at the back where chickens, rabbits and fish are kept. The doctor teaches the children how to grow their own produce, how to fish and how to look after the chickens.
The chickens lay eggs. The rabbits are eaten. This all involves skills that most of the children could have learnt at home on the farms back in Syria. However, in the camp, life isn't as productive. There are many rules about what is and is not allowed and resources are few and far between. Parents struggle to teach life skills as they ordinarily would have done back home to their children.
The camp is 5.2 km² in size. Cars from visitors like us aren't allowed in the camp. The mode of transport is a push bike. The rocky, dusty land doesn't make it easy to peddle, but it is the best way to explore the camp.
In summary, the refugee camp is a holding base in the middle of a desert where Syrians dream of leaving to return to their homes one day. In the meantime, men and women like Adham and Amal provide purpose for the camp's children through sport. Each sport and practice session brings something to look forward to for the children and adults. Sport brings a little joy into the long, hot desert days where not much else happens.
Nelson Mandela's words about sport ring true here:
'Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.'
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