Arsenal Ladies captain Alex Scott travelled to Iraq last week to visit a football project funded by The Arsenal Foundation, in partnership with Save the Children.
The Arsenal Foundation has funded two artificial football pitches within camps in Khanaqeen, Iraq for children and families who have been forced to flee their homes.
The pitches provide youngsters living there with a safe space to play. They offer anescape from some of the difficulties the children face, and the chance to bring some joy to their childhoods.
The England international’s trip was preceded by Arsenal’s Soccer School coach Drew Tyler, who trained Save the Children staff on the ground to deliver their own football coaching sessions for the children living in the camp.
Speaking about her visit, Alex Scott said: “The impact that football is having on these children’s lives is incredible. Having escaped violence and war with only the clothes on their back, football is giving them back a childhood and some normality after everything they’ve been through.
The bravery and resilience the kids in the camps show is awe-inspiring and has really put things into perspective for me. But beneath the surface, these children have witnessed and experienced terrible atrocities and many have lost loved ones and friends.
By encouraging team work, instilling a sense of achievement and just by having some fun, football is helping them to recover and giving them a chance of a better future. I’m so proud that Arsenal and Save the Children are making such a difference to so many children’s lives. It has been truly inspiring to see the power that football can have.”
The brutal conflict in Iraq has seen more than 3.3 million people displaced across the country and over half of them are children. Throughout her stay Alex heard some of the devastating stories from children that have been affected by the conflict and who are benefitting from the programme.
Among the children that Alex met was 12 year-old Yasmine. Yasmine was forced to flee her home because of shelling and has been living in the camp for two years with her family.
Yasmine said: “When the bombing started I was so scared. It kept getting worse and worse until we had to escape. The day we left my home was the worst day of my life; I thought we would only be gone for two days so I didn’t say goodbye to my friends. We’ve been stuck in the camp for two years now and life is really hard – it’s hot and dirty and we often get sick.”
The culture within the communities at the camps is extremely conservative but the football programme is playing a key role in empowering the girls – building their confidence and encouraging equality amongst all the children.
Yasmine continued: “When the football pitch was built it was such a good day. I love going there because it makes me forget everything and I can just be happy playing with my friends. At first, the boys didn’t like us playing football but now our skills have improved they respect us more. If I keep training every day I hope that one day I can be a female football player just like Alex Scott.”
By combining Save the Children’s experience of delivering life-changing programmes with Arsenal’s football expertise, this ground-breaking project has reached more than 2,500 children across the two camps so far.
Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal Chief Executive, said: “Working in partnership with Save the Children has allowed us to do something very special. Using the Arsenal name and football as a motivating force, we are making a meaningful difference on the ground.
"Many of the children living in the camp are football fans. The game is part of the joy of their childhood. So much of that joy has been stripped away by what they’ve been through, but these pitches provide them with a place they can play, where they can be children again and do something they love.
"We are sending a message to them that Arsenal cares about them and we hope this can be a motivating force for them and give them hope in desperate times.”
Tanya Steele, CEO of Save the Children, said: “The football programme in Iraq has taken our long-term partnership with Arsenal to a new level. Since 2011, the Club has supported our emergency and education work in the Middle East, but this new programme is using football to help us improve the lives of vulnerable children in a country which desperately needs our help.
"The conflict in Iraq has caused widespread devastation and the children living in these camps are deeply distressed. Football is giving them a reason to be happy again, which is vital for their mental and physical wellbeing after the horrors they’ve experienced.
"We’re incredibly grateful to the ongoing support of The Arsenal Foundation and we are thrilled that the Arsenal name is bringing so much hope and joy to the children of Iraq.”
The Arsenal Foundation has been supporting Save the Children as their global partner since 2011 and has raised more than £1.5million to support the charity’s life-saving work.
In addition to funding long-term education programmes for children in China and Indonesia, Arsenal has been a committed contributor towards Save the Children’s emergency response work donating to the charity’s appeals for the Japan Earthquake, East Africa Food Crisis, Ebola Outbreak, Philippines Typhoon, Nepal Earthquake, Syria Crisis and most recently the Child Refugee Crisis.
The new football programme in Iraq is the first project of its type which The Arsenal Foundation and Save the Children have developed together. Both organisations hope to implement more programmes which harness the power of football in other locations around the world.