The Arsenal Foundation

Tackling the mental health of child refugees

Marwa, from Syria, in Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan
Marwa, from Syria, in Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan

This Refugee Week, more than 26 million people around the world are in a position where they have been forced to flee their home countries due to conflict and persecution. Many are currently living in overcrowded conditions with limited or no access to healthcare. Half are children.

It is well known that prolonged exposure to conflict, stress and uncertainty, without adequate support, can have immediate and long-lasting effects on children’s mental health.

Throughout 11 years of conflict and displacement in Syria for example, many young boys and girls from refugee families have fled to neighbouring countries and beyond after witnessing things no child should see. Personal testimonies show the emotional and physical scarring has stuck with them years later.

In 2018, Save the Children and The Arsenal Foundation launched a ground-breaking Sports for Development programme – Coaching for Life - aiming to tackle this issue head on. To build a robust evidence base in how the power of football can directly support children’s mental health, even in some of the most deprived areas of the world. 

Now, in one of the largest impact evaluation studies of its kind, the early evidence suggest it is achieving these ambitious goals.   

‘Coaching for Life’

Save the Children became The Arsenal Foundation’s first global charity partner in 2011, supporting the charity’s emergency work across the world, as well as education projects in China and Indonesia, and Child Friendly Spaces in Iraq, Somalia and Indonesia.

The Coaching for Life programme was born out of the desire to combine Save the Children’s over 100 years of child protection expertise, including mental health and psycho-social support, with Arsenal in the Community’s 40 years of sports for development experience.

Coaching for Life, in Za'atari, Jordan

Participants on Coaching for Life, in Za'atari, Jordan

Based in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp on the northern border with Syria where nearly 80,000 people have fled the country’s devastating civil war, the programme uses bespoke football sessions as a tool to improve the emotional and physical well-being of girls and boys in the camp.

The two organisations have built five football pitches across Za’atari and trained 14 Syrian coaches to deliver the programme spanning 20-week cycles. Currently in its seventh cycle, the programme consists of six ‘football for resilience’ coaching modules, with each session addressing issues such as gender empowerment, managing emotions, learning how to communicate, decision making, self-esteem and conflict management.

The Evidence Gap

Through play, children can learn social and emotional skills like empathy, building relationships, and coping with difficult situations and feelings. There is also evidence that physical activity can support children’s cognitive function and reduce the risk of depression.

Team sports in particular are linked with improved psychological and social health.

Recent evidence suggests that pairing physical activity with mental health, psychological and social support for people who have been displaced from their home contributed to children’s social and emotional development.

However, there remains an evidence gap in the link between physical activity and children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing in low-and middle-income countries. This is where Coaching for Life come in.

From 2018 to 2021 we have carried out a systematic evaluation of the programme’s impact to help plug this gap, using rigorous quantitative and qualitative data collection from surveys, interviews and focus group discussions with our young participants, coaches, and caregivers.

A Sense of Belonging

Being part of the programme was like having a sense of pride, self-confidence, and having the desire to strengthen my personality and character. The coaches made me feel self-affirmed and made me want to excel. My position on the defence line made me feel that I am an effective participant within the team.Coaching for Life participant

During interviews and discussions, children commented that Coaching for Life made them feel they belonged to a group – close to 90 per cent of children said they always felt safe, comfortable, and part of the programme.

More than 90 per cent felt that there was often or always an adult they trusted – who listened to them, told them when they did a good job, or really cared about them. This sense of belonging and having a trusted adult also directly correlated with an increase in resilience and wellbeing scores from the children’s survey responses.

Sisters in the Coaching for Life programme

Two sisters hone their skills in the Coaching for Life programme

Children mentioned enhancing self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence, and getting better at solving problems and regulating their emotions. Some talked about their increased ability to make decisions and feeling like they could do whatever they put their mind to.

Children, caregivers, staff, and stakeholders identified communication skills and ability to interact with others as key areas of improvement. Male participants tended to emphasise treating others with more respect and kindness and less aggression, whereas female participants talked about learning to better express themselves, speak out and overcome their shyness. The programme now has a 50/50 gender split.

For the girls of Za’atari refugee camp, the Syrian conflict drove them there and covid has had a huge impact on their lives over the last two years, with rates of child marriage and gender-based violence increasing in the camp since the start of the pandemic. 

However, thanks to Coaching for Life, the girls have been empowered to stand up for their rights and help break the gender bias in the camp. Through the programme we teach girls how to become advocates against child marriage and gender-based violence, as well as standing up for their rights to an education and the chance to play sport.

We have helped to destigmatise female participation in sports in the camp, which are traditionally perceived to be reserved for men. We have ensured that girls feel safe to participate in the football programme by creating female only football pitches which are covered for privacy and have recruited female coaches to deliver the programme at girls-only centres. In addition, we have ensured that the programme works around the girls’ school hours in the camp so that they can continue their vital education.

We have seen real success in engaging girls in Coaching for Life, with girls participation more than doubling since the programme began and attendance rates in the programme at 100 per cent.

The survey data suggests that the programme has been particularly effective for children who are not part of regular and structured learning opportunities where they engage with peers. There was a significant improvement in resilience and wellbeing for children who were out of school at the start of the programme (25 per cent) compared to those attending school.

What next?

The results from this evaluation are a heart-warming reminder of the power of Sports for Development. They have also provided helpful insights and recommendations to help us further refine the future of Coaching for Life.

We have learnt for example that more must be done to address the barriers children face accessing pitches, a gender transformative approach which further challenges gender norms and stereotypes, invest in our coaches’ development and explore the role the programme can play in influencing broader societal change. This will be where our focus lies going forward.

To find out more and read the full impact evaluation, visit here.

This article was written by Mairead King.

Mairead is the Director of The Arsenal Foundation. Mairead’s experience in the sports for development sector comes from having spent six years at Save the Children working in partnership with Arsenal FC. Mairead is passionate about the need to measure the development impacts football can have within the communities where we work

Arsenal Football Club has always understood the power it has to bring people together and make a difference in the community. From North London to Za’atari, The Arsenal Foundation uses the power of football and the connection to the Arsenal family to inspire and support young people locally and across the globe. Working as one team, Arsenal and Save the Children have combined their expertise to create a unique programme, funded by The Arsenal Foundation, that supports the mental health and wellbeing of children affected by conflict and violence in Za’atari Refugee Camp.

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