It’s late April, and after the best part of 10 years hosting and helping to produce Soccer Aid for Unicef it’s my first trip away to see where and how the money is spent.
Together with a small team we flew to Jordan to visit the Za’atari camp, home to 80,000 refugees - over half of them being children, almost all of them having fled war in Syria.
Za’atari comes at you from nowhere. Nestled near the Syrian border 42 miles outside the relaxed, sophisticated capital Amman it’s like a different world, although it isn’t what I expected to find. The clichéd images of a wind-torn tented refugee camp we’ve all become used - and desensitised - to were quickly put to bed. It seems to be a busy, safe, organised camp that has almost become its own city. Blink and you’d think it had been there forever, with all the basics structures in place of any town.
It has sanitation, healthcare, temporary - but for the most part stable – dwellings, and most surprisingly, commerce. On the main streets, named after famous roads (the ‘Champs-Elysees’, for example) an almost Dickensian scene of butchers, barbers, sweet shops, mechanics have all sprung up, like the most unlikely but welcome oasis in the middle of a fragile, war torn desert. Above all though, and arguably most importantly, it has education.
Unicef is all about and for children, wherever they are from. Their slogan in this oddly inspiring corner of a part of the world that desperately needs something to be cheerful about is ’no lost generation’.
The more you see for yourself in somewhere like Za’atari, the more the message makes sense. Education. It’s the same the world over, from rural Kenya to East London. Give children an education, academic, societal, vocational, and they have a shot.
Without it you have a generation that is bereft of hope, of prospects, and, from what I heard anecdotally in some cases, far more prone to the terrible lure of extremism.
The place does have a hopelessness, of course it does. (80,000 people have come to live, effectively in limbo). The kids I met, Mohamed and Zain, are your average five-year-old boys, full of energy, but when I took them home from school, the importance of the goal of ‘no lost generation’ is sadly thrown into contrast by the boy’s father.
We are welcomed into the two-room home of 32-year-old Shadi. He fled the war in Syria five years ago and has been at the camp ever since, whilst he’s grateful to be alive, between cups of cardamom coffee his sense of frustration is palpable: “Growing up in a refugee camp, your heart turns to stone. All they see here is blood, watch TV, see and hear people being killed and fighting.”
For Shadi, there is no future for him or his family back in Syria, but having lived an enforced, jobless Groundhog Day here in the camp for five years, he’s acutely aware that the safety and education his boys are getting is all important and vital to their future.
Unicef secures this future by hustling, by haranguing, and by good old-fashioned fundraising. It might seem like a big agency that is resource rich, but it never has enough for what it needs. Despite this, it still does it’s best to deliver.
This all seems so far from home, but it isn’t. Off the back of the Arab Spring, war came to Syria, and the population had to deal with the fall out. They had to leave their home and their country and make some kind of life, any kind of life in a neighbouring country and wait, try and bring up their children as best they can and hope that one day they either get the chance to return home, or settle in a neighbouring country.
Now flip this, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you had to flee your home and ended up in a field bringing your kids up in France, Spain, Ireland. Wouldn’t you hope that in a parallel universe the Syrian people would show compassion and humanity and pick up the phone to help the UK and your kids out?
I believe how we treat others and strangers says a lot about who we are as a society. Maybe that sounds naïve, it’s almost certainly coloured by being the child of immigrants, but it’s always something I’m most proud about living in the UK.
We live in an incredibly giving country, the totals on charity nights never fail to amaze me, but truth be told it barely touches the surface. It’s Band Aid stuff, but it helps… and until the problems are sorted on a global level (unlikely) all we can keep doing is keep giving - a little here, a little there, and trust that the likes of Unicef are doing their bit to help. That there won’t be a lost generation, and that the children of Syria can have some kind of future where they lead a fulfilled life as a well-rounded, adult.
So, when you’re watching Usain Bolt and co on 10 June, when you’re cheering on an exhausted celeb, running through what looks like treacle, or when an old grizzled player pot shots against a celeb goalie from 30 yards out, I’m not asking you to thinking of the bigger picture. I want you to enjoy the game.
I just want you to know that whatever you donate on the day, will go to the right place. It will go to help educate, to normalise, and to inspire a generation of children just like our own - and that’s something worth passing, dribbling, saving and shooting for.
Soccer Aid for Unicef is live on ITV at 6:30pm on Sunday 10 June. All public donations to Soccer Aid for Unicef will be matched by the UK government, doubling the difference for children in danger around the world. To find out more visit socceraid.org.uk